Later on …

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

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Text: John 20:19-31

Christians have been celebrating Easter for over 2000 years now. We know the story by heart. As I suggested last week, this story has become so much part of our lore, so familiar to us that it goes largely unquestioned. We celebrate the event annually, yes. but how often do we try to put ourselves in the place of those first disciples? How often do we try to see from their perspective, to feel what they felt, to understand what they were going through?

Jumping to John from Luke’s account, we pick up the story later on, that same day. John writes that much has happened. We know all about it — Mary and Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” at the empty tomb in the early morning darkness, the dazzling figures who suddenly appear, Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ. Was it too much for them to grasp, more than they could wrap their troubled minds around? When folks have been traumatized, as those first followers surely must have been by the cruel crucifixion of their leader, it would not have been an easy or sure thing to take in the news that he has risen from the dead. Indeed, the most normal response to trauma is a kind of merciful numbness, no thoughts, no feelings, a kind of nothingness that allows time for adjustment and healing. This good news that comes so quickly may be more than they can handle.

So later on, that same day, we find them huddled together in that common room, doors locked against all that they fear. But what is it that they have to fear on that first Easter? Unfortunately, John uses the term “the Jews” and, because of that, much antisemitism has been unleashed on Jewish people over the ensuing centuries. The writer of John was probably Jewish. (Certainly he  was if he was John, Jesus’ original disciple, the one “whom Jesus loved). He was writing to a Jewish community, telling them the tale of a group of people who were themselves Jews.

It would be much more accurate to say those gathered in the locked room were afraid of the religious authorities, those Jews who controlled the Temple and the practice of their ancient religion. These were the ones who, out of their own fear of Jesus’ challenge to their power and practice of the faith, had engineered his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Those first followers were, rightly, afraid of the powers that dominated and oppressed them, that would have it in for them because of their association with the seditionist, Jesus of Nazareth. They had no way of knowing for certain if they were being hunted down as terrorists, a threat to the religious elite of their own tradition and to the empire. Even if Jesus was alive, what was to prevent some twisted recurrence of what had taken place on Friday?

Then, as Elisabeth Johnson suggests, “They are likely afraid for their own lives, afraid of their uncertain futures.” As exciting as a living Christ might be, what did that actually mean for the living of their lives? In fact, she continues, “…just maybe, the disciples were also afraid of Jesus. After all, they had failed him miserably. Peter had denied him three times, and the rest had deserted him… Perhaps the last person the disciples wanted to meet on that evening was Jesus, risen from the dead to confront them with their failures” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on John 20:19-31,” April 27, 2014, workingpreacher.org). This seems an intriguing possibility. If we were to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, how might we feel at the prospect of having to face this one who has loved us so thoroughly and whom we have abandoned so completely?

So later on, that same day, here they were huddled in the same room, locked away in fear and suddenly, without warning, there he was standing among them, in the middle of that crowded space. Imagine for a minute what it must have been like. Place yourself in a secure space, doors locked and bolted from the inside and suddenly someone is there who wasn’t there when you locked the locks. It reminds me of the shock old Scrooge experienced when his midnight visitors appeared in his secure chamber, uninvited.

However, Christ does nothing to frighten them further. His first words are neither challenging or chastening. “Peace be with you.” Not just “peace” but the classic “Hebrew greeting, ‘shalom,’ a blessing that,” as Elisabeth Johnson says, “connotes more than tranquility, but a deep and holistic sense of well-being — the kind of peace the world cannot give” (Johnson, op. cit.). In spite of all he has been through, Christ remains concerned for their well-being; soon they are rejoicing. Who wouldn’t, on such an occasion? Can you imagine yourselves experiencing the joy of that evening, excitedly reaching out to the one who was dead and is alive again? Sorrow, guilt, shame, the numbness of trauma are all left behind as Christ obviously is not there to hold their failures against them. All is forgiven in the warm embrace of Christ’s shalom.

Then, later on, that word again, “Peace be with you. Remember when we were talking and I told you I wouldn’t leave you comfortless, orphaned? Well here…”  and “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” In John’s story, Pentecost is as simple and powerful as a breath, the very breath of life.

People have struggled for years with his next word, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Surely he didn’t mean to give his followers, then or now, the power to forgive sin as we have come to understand it. Isn’t forgiveness of sin God’s business, one of those things far above our pay grade?

Again, Elisabeth Johnson writes, “As many interpreters have demonstrated, ‘sin’ in John’s Gospel is not primarily a moral category; rather,” she says, “it is fundamentally unbelief, the refusal to receive the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.” So then, “Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be ‘released’ (aphiemi) from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be ‘retained’ or ‘held onto’ (kratéo). The stakes of this mission are very high indeed” (Johnson, op. cit.).

Clearly Jesus has returned to send those first followers, that fellowship of the fearful, out with renewed power to carry on the work of the Beloved Community that he had come to share with them and, indeed, with all creation. Part of Christ’s word of peace, of shalom, part of Christ’s concern for their well-being is that these are the ones he has trusted and trained to carry on his ministry. These are the ones Paul will characterize as the living “Body of Christ,” once Jesus has ascended to God. The breath of life is the power of God to motivate them to go out and transform the world in the name of the Risen One.

Still, later on, that evening, Thomas shows up. Who knows where he’s been? Maybe as a practical man he’s been out trying to find enough food to feed the assembly or maybe he’s just gone out for some fresh air, to escape the suffocating atmosphere of that locked and fear-ridden room. Anyway, he’s having none of their tale about a risen Christ. We love to say he was a “show me” kind of guy and history has unfairly painted him as a doubter. I like to think of him as a realist and a sensate type, one who perceives by putting the pieces together in practical and logical ways. “I want an experience of this risen Christ,” he insists, “for myself.”

I like Bruce Epperly’s view of Thomas. He writes that “He missed out on the spiritual revival of the upper room; and wanted proof that Jesus was alive. His quest was not just intellectual, it was experiential and spiritual. He wanted to see Jesus, feel his breath, and touch his body. He wanted the real presence of the risen Jesus not just talk about it” (Bruce Epperly, “Just Breathe,” in Living a Holy Adventure, April 22, 2014, patheos.com).

So later on, a week later, in fact, they’re all gathered in that same room. Is the door locked? The text doesn’t say, but the “doors were shut” and once more Jesus stands among them. Only this time, Thomas is there. I don’t think Thomas needs to touch Christ’s wounds. His sense of the presence of the Risen One is enough for him to cry out, “My Lord and my God!” It was the living experience of the presence of Christ that he craved and, in that moment, his craving was fulfilled.

Epperly writes, “We [all] need breathing space and it is a credit to the disciples that they gave Thomas breathing space, and allowed him to live with his questions.” As a result when, later on, “…Jesus returns to the group, [Thomas] is amazed and transformed, and he can breathe again” (Epperly, op. cit.). The community holds space for Thomas. As a result, he is able to have the same transforming experience that they had had. Isn’t that what the Beloved Community does for you and me and all the world, hold the space for us until we find for ourselves an experience of the living Christ?

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells them. We know that those so blessed are descendants of the fellowship of the fearful, gathered in that locked room so long ago. We are all kin to Thomas, desiring and finding our own unique experiences of the living Christ, held in faith and love, grace and compassion by a redeemed and transformed fellowship that is the Beloved Community of God.

Later on, John writes at the end of his book, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Because they experienced and believed and cared and shared, we share with them the Body of Christ. We join a fellowship of those freed from fear, living in the liberation of Christ’s shalom. We also share in the global uprising that is the work of the Beloved Community Christ came to inspire, beginning with them and stretching on to eternity.

As Brian McLaren says in today’s Words of Preparation, “So fellowship is for scarred people, and for scared people, and for people who want to believe but aren’t sure what or how to believe. When we come together just as we are, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again. Through fellowship, a little locked room becomes the biggest space in the world. In that space of fellowship, the Holy Spirit fills us like a deep breath of fresh air” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 175). From such humble beginnings the world is transformed in the reality of the Risen Christ.

Amen.

 

 

Happy New Year!

Doug DavidsonThe turning of the calendar presents a wonderful opportunity to assess where we are, and where we’d like to be. What better time is there to think about what is most important to us, and to consider how we might devote our time and attention to those things? What might we do to root ourselves more deeply in God’s love, so that this love might flow through us more fully? At their best, I think New Year’s resolutions are all about asking those kinds of questions, and then seeking to find small and large ways to put our answers into practice.

If you’re wondering how you might do that, could I suggest that you join in our Adult Spiritual Formation after worship each Sunday? We have an excellent line up this month. On January 4, Dona Smith‐Powers will be leading a conversation about her experience at a recent conference on Palestine. On the next two Sundays, I will be leading a study of John Shelby Spong’s fascinating book on the Gospel of John: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I had an opportunity to take a week‐long intensive course with Bishop Spong this summer, and I think you’ll be intrigued and inspired by his take on this unique Gospel. (The book is a great read, too. We’ll order a few copies for the church, but I’d encourage you to purchase your own copy.) And then on the final Sunday of the month, Dr. Jennifer Davidson will be leading a conversation about her recent experiences with the Black Lives Matter movement as it seeks to challenge racism within the police and criminal justice system.

Speaking of Dr. Davidson, I am delighted to say that we’ll have her as our guest preacher for three consecutive Sundays this month while pastor Rick is away on study leave. Jennifer Davidson is the associate professor of worship and theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West. She is a gifted preacher whom you will not want to miss—and I would say that even if we weren’t married! I am delighted to have the opportunity to share the worship leadership with Jennifer during the three Sundays while Pastor Rick is away this month.

I’m also pleased to announce that our January mission offering will be going to a special project selected by our youth. In partnership with ABCUSA and Baptist churches in Burundi, our offering will support efforts to promote free‐range chicken farming among families living in one of the poorest areas of that African nation. You can read more about that effort elsewhere in the Spire, and you’ll be hearing more about it each Sunday during January.

May we all open ourselves to fresh experiences of God in our midst in this New Year. Blessings to you for 2015!

Doug Davidson,
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families

The Road to Freedom (November 2, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Texts: Exodus 1:1-14; 3:1-15; John 8:1-11; Galatians 5:1, 13-23 (The Message)

 

1Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.

13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?

16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.

22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

 

Once again our McLaren resource has gifted us with a rich selection of texts. We can choose among the stories of Moses and how he came to lead his people to liberty or John’s account of the woman caught in adultery or Paul’s riff on freedom as he tries to straighten out the good folks of First Church, Galatia. All of this is gathered under the theme of “Freedom!” The challenge is that each of these texts approaches freedom from a different perspective.

We considered the call of Moses not long ago, the story of the burning bush, Moses’ reluctance to go and God’s promise to go with him to set God’s people free. McLaren writes that this story “makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims. God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God does not uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future may come” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 39). Once again, McLaren shows us how the God of Israel is distinguished from other gods of the ancient world who would have been firmly on the side of the ruling classes. Shockingly good news! The living God, the great God of the universe, is for the oppressed and downtrodden. God hears the cries of those who are bound by chains of every sort.

The Moses story is about freedom on a grand scale. It’s about the liberation of a entire people, a people with whom God has covenanted to be their God as they will be God’s people. This is a tale of God’s desire that these people live together with one another and with God in peace, harmony and well-being. It holds a promise of the restoration of the rich, abundant life that God laid out in creation. This story has held hope for enslaved people in all generations, from the slaves of the ancient Greco-Roman world to the African slaves brought to US shores, from contemporary structures of apartheid to the poor, downtrodden people of slums and barrios everywhere. The song that begins, “Let my people go,” ends with the refrain, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty. I’m free at last!”

Still, as we know only too well, the road to freedom is long and arduous. The Children of Israel go grumbling and complaining, dragging their feet through forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God may desire that God’s people live free, but we make it difficult to find fulfillment of the promise. Take the story of the woman caught in adultery. Her wrong-doing, her sin is not in question here. She is guilty and she knows it and she feels it. The point of the story is the self-righteous judgment of the community that wants to keep her bound to her guilt rather than offer her the liberation of forgiveness and restoration. The great irony is that the community’s self-righteous judgment has them tied up knots as well. They are bound to the letter of an ancient law that serves neither the woman nor the community.

Jesus sees through the hypocrisy and offers freedom to all. But the road to freedom is challenging. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Well, well, that’s not exactly what they were expecting from the teacher. He has turned their blood lust back on themselves. I wonder if, after they have slunk away and spent some time considering his words, they didn’t find some freedom in Jesus’ challenge. Humbling, yes, but liberating as well. “You mean it’s enough to take care of the log in my own eye without worrying about the speck in my neighbor’s eye?” Can you feel the release in not having to carry the burden of another’s sin and guilt along with your own? And, in the process, are we not freed to work together then for the welfare of the whole community? As Richard Hays writes, “freedom in Christ manifests itself through the formation of concrete communities where the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender are overcome in communion at the one table” (Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI, p. 310).

“For freedom Christ has set you free.” What a word of hope and promise! Paul is writing to a congregation caught between some who insist on adherence to the law, to certain religious rules and practices in order to secure God’s favor, and those who insist that they are free of any such rules and practice. It is not unlike the situation with the community that comes to Jesus ready to stone their neighbor. Keep the rules or you’re headed for hell. But that sort of judgment is beyond our pay grade and, in fact, Jesus has liberated us from such a burden.

Remember how Jesus summarized the law – love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself, the irony being that he drew these mandates directly from the ancient texts. This is a liberating word, easy to remember, enough to focus the practice of a life time. Love God, love neighbor.

In his teaching on freedom, Paul reinforces this liberating word, “…everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Then, in case they don’t get the full import, he adds a timely warning, “If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”

Just to be clear, he reminds the members of First Church, Galatia, that the freedom he’s talking about is not license. The freedom we find in Christ is freedom that comes with responsibility. As a reminder of our exploration of “Rivalry and Reconciliation,” Elisabeth Johnson tells us that “Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and destroys life in community” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010,” workingpreacher.org).

We’re not free to do whatever we want, certainly not without consequences. Paul says the road to freedom leads to a crucial fork. If you take the fork toward getting your own way all the time, you’ll find yourself wandering through “…repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

The other fork leads to the freedom to serve, the freedom to care for one another and the community, the freedom to love as we are loved. It’s not cheap freedom. It comes at a price, but is well worth it in the end. Here we find ourselves immersed in “…things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity…a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people…involve[ment] in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, [the ability] to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

Well, there you go, the road to freedom. Walking this road has implications for people and nations and creation itself. It also has implications for you and me and First Baptist, Palo Alto. When we come to that crucial juncture in the road which route will we take, the one to self-interest, self-righteous and selfishness or the one to love for God and neighbor and ultimate freedom? “It’s a long road to freedom, awinding steep and high, but when you walk in love with the wind on your wing and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the miles fly by.” Amen.

When Meaning Comes to Call (September 21, 2014)

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Texts: Psalm 145; Proverbs 8; John 1:1-18

When Meaning comes to call, will it find a welcome, a place in our lives? When Wisdom pays a visit, will we make room for it among us? These are crucial questions posed by the texts for today’s service. Brian McLaren argues that in the story of creation, there is a world of meaning, but that does not guarantee we will grasp that meaning and incorporate it in our daily living.

So far we have seen God bring order from chaos, create life on earth, bring about humanity in God’s own image and call it all good. Sometimes we see the goodness in it all, the sacred patterns, the world of meaning. Other times we have difficulty finding our way among the challenges of life on this small planet. We may delight in the beauty of the last rose of summer, a child’s playful mischief, or a song that sings in the soul. We may despair at the loss of a loved one, the challenge of underemployment or ancient enmities that break out in violence and war.   You fill in the blanks. Where do you find meaning in life? What brings delight to your being? When do you feel hope erode and wonder where God is?

Many of us struggle with those scripture passages and stories in our tradition that seem to support a capricious, angry, punitive God, but then we get texts like today’s in which Yahweh is described as one who “…is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…good to all, and [whose] compassion is over all that he has made.” We are told about Holy Wisdom who “was daily [God’s delight, rejoicing before [God] always, rejoicing in [God’s] inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” There is both promise and hope in these ancient words that may still speak meaning to us today.

In his commentary on We Make the Road by Walking, McLaren suggests that there are “four common ways to understand the logic of the universe…” The first, he says, is to see life as “war…a survival-of-the fittest competition to the death.” This is the harshest sort of biological determinism. It posits that humans, along with other creatures, are inherently aggressive and will do anything to protect their own turf and well-being. It is a perspective that drives competition, winning and losing, getting ahead at any price and, ultimately, violence and war.

The second way is to believe that “life is compliance, a keep-your-head-down-and-do-what-your-told story of power, domination, and submission.” This is a kind of hopeless position in which survival is dependent on never rocking the boat, never exercising freedom, and never experiencing the challenges and joy that life holds. Mind your manners, mind your own business, never ask why or what or how or who. Fatalism rules.

Third, is a perspective in which “life is a machine that runs on cold and objective utility, not meaning or morality.” This would be the extreme of modern, technocratic society, the sort of dystopia presented in 1984, where Big Brother keeps society functioning without much question or challenge, or The Giver, in which life is devoid of memory and, therefore, all the meaning and wisdom that memory can provide. This perspective could be linked to the Deist notion of a God who winds up the universe like a giant clock and then leaves it to run on and out on its own.

Do any or all of these framing stories sound familiar? Have you encountered them in whole or in part in your own life and relationships? Each has its practical and philosophical champions. But, as children of God and followers of Christ, none of them supports the faith tradition that we claim. McLaren offers a fourth way in which “life is a story that includes conflict, compliance, and mechanism [yes] – but [also] has a higher or deeper purpose and meaning rooted in goodness, pregnancy, creativity, and love.” We see these dimensions in today’s texts – in the psalmist’s affirmation of the majesty and the lovingkindness of God, in the remarkably creative and ordering power of wisdom and in the Word or Meaning made flesh.

It is possible to trace in the ancient law and prophets, poetry and songs, history and proverbs the course of grace and truth, but we also can get bogged down in the details of times and traditions that do not speak clearly to us. It is challenging, even impossible, at times, to sort out the relation of the familiar material in the unfamiliar context. We make meaning as best we can, but we do not always find the meaning that was intended.

John says that there came a time when God could no longer depend on the ancient texts to tell the story and to establish the intended world of meaning. So God created something new. There was a time when “the Word became flesh and lived among us…” What is this meaning of this mystery and how does it affect the living of our lives?

The Word, in Greek, the Logos, who or what is it? Some would say Logic or the Organizing Principle or Wisdom or Meaning became flesh and lived among us. The Meaning takes human form to demonstrate its possibilities for us and for creation. I have quoted before a favorite passage from John Boswell who says, “A life can be an argument; being can be a reason. An idea can be embodied in a person, and in human form it may break down barriers and soften hardness of heart that words could not.” Does that make sense? Can you identify those times when a human being, a life lived, has helped you to see truth, to find your way, to move to a higher or deeper plane when no amount of rationality or logical argument could get you there?

I think of the witness of Gandhi and King and all those who believe and demonstrate the power of nonviolence when it can hardly be argued to make sense in an angry, hostile, violent world. I think of Mother Teresa and missionaries ministering to the Ebola epidemic who risk their lives to lift up the poor and downtrodden, the sick and dying of the earth against all reasonable odds. I see St. Francis and Dorothy Day and all those who turn their backs on the accumulation of wealth, who embrace poverty and draw close to God in service to the well-being of all creation. These and others bear powerful personal witness to that fourth way of life that finds “…a higher or deeper purpose and meaning rooted in goodness, pregnancy, creativity, and love.”

Boswell continues, “This [living being as ultimate argument or meaning] is, at least in part, what John the Evangelist means when he refers to Christ as logos. Although translators often render it as ‘word,’ it is much more than that. It is Greek for ‘reason” and “argument’: our word ‘logic’ comes from it.” Ultimately, then, “Christ was God’s unanswerable ‘argument.’ [God’s] people had hardened their hearts against his spoken reasons, the arguments propounded – in words – for centuries by the prophets and sages. So he sent an argument in the form of a human being, a life, a person. The argument became flesh and blood: so real that no one could refute it or ignore it” (John Boswell, “Introduction to the First Edition,” Chris Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church, pp. xvii-xviii).

An argument, a manifestation of meaning so real, so powerful that, when seen in all its fullness and understood with the insight of wisdom, can neither be refuted or ignored. It is true that, with the wiles we often bring to the gift of human freedom and choice, we have historically, traditionally taken even this Christ and shaped to our own agendas. Often those agendas have been driven by the first three views of life’s trajectory – the logic of rivalry, the logic of compliance and the logic of meaningless mechanism. But the journey we are currently on as people of faith and seekers after meaning understands the incarnation in terms of today’s Words of Preparation: “The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge, and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus. In this story, pregnancy abounds. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.”

Can you see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, taste it, embrace it – a universe, inhabited by us, along with all creation, a universe full of beauty, opportunity, challenge and meaning? The Meaning takes human form in Jesus of Nazareth, full of grace and truth, imbued with wisdom and radiant with light, the very essence of God in the flesh to show us first-hand who, what, how we were meant to be. Meaning, in the form of peace and justice, compassion and care, healing and wholeness became a living reality in the person of Jesus Christ, who now invites us to come along for the journey, to follow his lead, to make the road by walking.   When this Meaning comes to call, will it find a welcome, a place in our lives? When such Wisdom pays a visit, will we make room for it among us? It may be that our very lives depend on it. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“New Year” Thanks

Three candlesA “new year” has begun, at least in the church tradition of kicking off the congregation’s educational emphases sometime early in September. Thanks to everyone who helped make our “Rally Day” a good one, with worship, Sunday School for children and youth and our final cookout of the season on the patio.

And speaking of thanks, Sunday we also took time to celebrate Eleanor and Hugh Satterlee for everything they do around here. They are both volunteers extraordinaire! We are a better community and this is a better place for all they share with such uncomplaining grace and dedication. In the litany in their honor, we prayed that we might “find in them inspiration and example to do likewise.” Indeed, that is our hope. A congregation runs on the generous participation of all its people, working, playing and worshiping together.

This Sunday, as “we make the road by walking,” we step back from the earliest creation stories in order to let Jesus enter the scene. Our focus text will be John 1:1-18, traditionally a Christmas reading. Here we use it to link Jesus the Christ to those beings or forces, like Wisdom and the Spirit, that were with God even before the beginning. We celebrate that in Jesus the Word, the meaning of God’s creative activity, became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth. God has, is and will continue to shape us and all creation according to holy principles and purposes. Will we choose to cooperate in this vast creative enterprise?

Please join us at 10:00 AM for worship and Sunday School and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation, in which we will begin consideration of another Brian McLaren book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis and a Revolution of Hope, as part of our participation in Campaign Nonviolence in Palo Alto. Bring someone to share the day with you.

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

Pastor Rick  

Not in This Tomb (4/20/2014)

sermonsNOT IN THIS TOMB

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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Texts: Matthew 28:1-10; John 18:1-18 (The Message)

Have you ever lost anything valuable, something precious, irreplaceable?   It probably doesn’t take a big prompt to bring back that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, that mixture of fear, anger and sadness. Maybe it was a valuable watch or piece of jewelry. Maybe it was a card sent by your mother or a note from your father or picture of you with your sisters and brothers. Maybe it was a family heirloom passed down from your great, great grandparents who had brought it with them from the old country. Maybe it was job to which you were dedicated. Maybe it was a partner or spouse who chose to move on. Maybe the loss came through the death of a pet or a friend or a loved one.

Loss makes me think of those great parables from the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. In the first two cases the shepherd and the woman searched and searched until they found what was lost and in each case there was joy and celebration. The father did not search for his lost son. Instead, he waited patiently, hopefully, expectantly until his boy came to his senses and returned on his own. Again there was rejoicing and celebration.

Maybe you’ve had experiences like this in which the lost is found with much joy and celebration. I saw on the evening news this week two people who had lost legs in the Boston Marathon bombing.   With smiles on their faces, to the cheers of the accompanying crowd, they were crossing the finish line, having covered the entire Marathon route on prosthetic legs. There are many ways in which what was lost may be recovered.

Especially from the human perspective, today’s ancient words tell the tale of something lost and something found. But this tale operates on a plane hitherto unknown in human history. We heard two accounts of the same Resurrection story today, and there are two others we didn’t consider. Each gospel writer tells the tale from a different perspective. Each has different characters and different encounters. Each has its own set of circumstances. It is pointless to try to reconcile all the details. There was no reporter with a video camera to provide an eye witness report for the 11 o’clock news. And, as we know from numerous crime dramas, eye witness accounts are notoriously unreliable. In the midst of the excitement and trauma, was the Fed Ex truck on fire or not?

In spite of the immortal words of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday, “The facts, ma’am. Just the facts” – words which, by the way, were never actually uttered on the old radio/tv crime drama, we know facts are elusive. So, in the way of the wise Native American elder, I will say, “I don’t know if it actually happened this way, but I know the story is true.” There is wisdom and truth that supersedes factuality. In some cases that wisdom and truth is life-giving.

One key aspect, perhaps the key aspect, that all four versions of the Easter story hold in common is the empty tomb. Not in this tomb was the body of Jesus to be found. So say Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The religious authorities may have convinced the Roman Governor to seal the tomb with a large stone and post an armed guard, but every account reports that early on the Easter morning the tomb was empty, no body to be found. There are reports of encounters with one – or was it two? – figures in dazzling white. There is the familiar angelic admonition not to be afraid and instructions to tell the disciples either to return to Galilee or stay in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. But they all agree, the tomb itself was empty, the stone rolled away and grave clothes left lying.

Another key aspect in all four accounts is that the first responders were women – whether it was to prepare properly the body, hastily buried at the Sabbath’s too-rapid approach on Friday or to keep vigil or to weep and mourn, it was women from Jesus’ followers who showed up very early in the morning the first day of the week, the Sabbath now behind them. It is not so surprising to find them first at the tomb on Sunday, they were also the last at the cross on Friday evening. Perhaps the women had less reason to fear the authorities than the men and so were freer to be seen in public mourning the loss of their teacher and friend. Or perhaps the women had less reason to hide in shame at abandoning Jesus when he needed them most. Whatever the reasons, they were the first to witness the reality – not in this tomb was the Christ to be found, not on this morning. As the angel reminds them, he has risen as he said he would.

Now I don’t know about you, but I imagine that word was baffling. As I remind us from time to time, we have had 2000 years to process these stories. They are central to our faith tradition. They have become engrained in us. But can you imagine what it must have been like for those women – whether it was several or just Mary Magdalene – to find an empty tomb and hear those words, “He is not here. He was raised, just as he said”? There must have been confusion, along with fear, doubt, and wonderment at what might have happened to the body. What did it all mean? The earliest gospel by Mark, in its oldest version, has the women keeping the information to themselves for fear of the consequences of telling such a tale in the very volatile public forum that Jerusalem must have been at that time.

John, the great story teller, gives us a very intimate account of that morning. Mary, alone at the tomb, discovers it empty. Peter and the beloved disciple run in and out of the scene and once more Mary is alone. Remember we started today trying to recall some of what we might feel when we have lost something valuable, precious, irreplaceable? What for Mary Magdalene could have been a more crushing loss than Jesus, her teacher and friend. Some scholars speculate that there was no more significant and committed follower of Jesus than this woman. This loss was catastrophic for her.

John seems to have a special understanding of the deep grief we feel when we have lost someone we love. Remember Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus? Whatever mighty act of God he was about to perform, he was overcome by his own deep feelings of grief at the loss of his friend. Now Mary Magdalene stands at the tomb and weeps. Pain, fear, confusion – “They took my Master…and I don’t know where they put him.” “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

How does she expect to care for one now three days dead? What does she want with the body? Who can read her mind now or then? She needed to mourn. She needed to weep. She needed to remember all Jesus had meant to her. Even at a stone-cold tomb there was something of him that might reach out to her and keep his memory alive. Now they had taken even this bit of consolation. It was hard to see through her tears in the murky mist of morning’s first pale light. “Mister, help me here. He’s not in this tomb. Do you know where I can find him?”

Oh yes, Mary. You are so right. Not in this tomb will you find him – or any other tomb for that matter. Yes, I know where you can find him. He’s right here with you, just as he promised. Open your swollen eyes, open your numbed mind, open your grieving heart. Here he is standing before you, calling you by name. “Mary.” Ah, can it be so? But no one else has ever spoken her name quite like that. No one has ever called her with such tenderness, love and compassion. Can it be? It must be. “Teacher,” and the reunion is complete. What was thought to be lost is found again.   What had been so painfully torn from her is restored. Her grief is lifted and her heart is healed in the presence of the living Christ.

I can’t explain it all to you. I don’t even know for sure if it happened just this way, but I know the story is true. I love the words of our opening song today. Sometimes I find myself singing them at random, unexpected moments. “Lives again our glorious King. Where, O death is now your sting? Where your victory boasting grave?” Not in this tomb. Not in any tomb. “Death cannot keep its prey.” God is a God of life and the living. Yes, there is this mystery called death with which we all must deal, but for God death is part of life. In Christ, all our fears, even the power of death itself are overcome. Do not be afraid, for life will ever triumph over death. Wesley’s hymn proclaims the ultimate truth of the Resurrection, “Love’s redeeming work is done; fought the fight, the battle one. Death in vain forbids him rise. Christ has opened paradise” – for you and me and all the world.

Mary, Rick, Jane, Alan, Kathy, Lynn, Sarah, Daniel – turn to your neighbor, take them by the hand and call them by name. Feel the redemptive power? Jesus calls us one by one into beloved community, that beloved community that lives at the center of the reign of God. In that community, in that reign, death holds no power. In that community of those called by name, in that reign of loving compassion for all creation, there is only room for life – abundant and eternal life. No hunger, no poverty, no apathy, no bullying, no hatred, no war, no enemies, no fear, no ignorance, no tombs of any kind and death itself shall be no more. If you can hear Christ calling your name this morning, calling from beyond the grave, calling from the very heart of God, then join together to bring that abundant and eternal life to all creation. I can’t tell you exactly how it is so, but I know it is true – Christ lives and because Christ lives, we, too, shall live. Christ is risen. Alleluia. Amen

Not This Time (April 6, 2014)

sermonsNOT THIS TIME

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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Texts: John 11:1-45 (The Message)

Some of us have stood at a tomb, faced an open grave, scattered the ashes of one beloved. We know what it’s like to be confronted with the stark reality of death and the flood of conflicting emotions that comes with it. I’ve stood at different sites at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise, Idaho, and the Veteran’s Cemetery next to it, to bury my father, my brother, my nephew, my step-father and-step sister, my brother-in-law, not to mention my beloved piano teacher and a dear high school friend. Not so long ago I stood by the open grave of Patrice Heath as her casket was lowered into the ground. We prayed and wept and celebrated her life, but it is not an easy thing, under any circumstances, to lay a loved one to rest.

Today’s ancient story is just such a situation. It’s also another occasion to encounter Jesus in his divinity and his humanity. It’s a long, complicated story. You have heard it read. I will not attempt to unpack it all this morning. Before I get to my main point though, I want to say that there are aspects of the story that trouble me. I have difficulty with Jesus’ decision to tarry long enough for his friend to be good and dead before he shows up. I hear the words that it is all for God’s glory and the ultimate good of those who will come to see and believe because of what he will do. And I understand that Christ is operating on God’s time, not Martha’s or Mary’s or mine. There is mystery here that I cannot completely understand and I still tend to side with those who wonder why he didn’t show up sooner.

I will share with you the best I word I’ve found so far about this action and then leave you to decide for yourselves. Fred Craddock writes of this text, which is the last and greatest of the signs that Jesus gives in John’s gospel, “At least two features mark sign stories. First, Jesus acts according to his own time and not according to external pressures…In this Gospel, Jesus’ actions are ‘from above.’ Second, to say this is a sign story is to say that its primary function is revelation. Some truth about the meaning of God’s glory and presence in the world is made known through Jesus’ ministry. For the stories to function this way, they must be seen to operate on two levels. On one level Jesus heals a cripple, opens the eyes of the blind or raises the dead, but on another level he reveals a truth about life eternal which God makes available in Jesus Christ” (Fred B. Craddock, “A Two-fold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21, 1999, p. 299).

What we do see here, which is much easier to understand, is Jesus’ compassion. The closer he gets to Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the more deeply he feels their pain, their grief, their loss. He starts out proclaiming that those around him will see a mighty miracle to the glory of God. It will help confirm his claim to being God’s Chosen One. But after his encounters with both Martha and Mary, grieving and chiding him for not coming sooner, he arrives at the stone-sealed tomb. It is chilling.

Remember we started today’s reflection standing before open graves and sealed tombs. Remember what it feels like – pain, loss, grief, aching hearts, gratitude for a loved one – all the myriad feelings that can flood our consciousness to the point of temporary numbness followed by inevitable tears. That’s Jesus on this day. We have a pretty good idea of how he felt when he suddenly broke out in tears. Plain and simple, no elaborate embellishment, he just stood in that place of stone-cold death and wept.

For me, there is nothing more powerful than these tears. In fact, I wonder if there could have been any raising of his dead friend without these tears.   Lazarus is raised on the flood of Jesus’ tears. Marjorie Suchocki writes of the universal consequences of Jesus’ compassion for his friend. She assures us that we are not “…forsaken by God in our own times of trouble. God does not prevent trouble from happening: we are finite, we are fragile, it is not possible to live without some kind of trouble entering our lives. We all face the worst of troubles in the deaths of those we dearly love, as well as in our own impending death. God is not impassive in the face of our troubles: Jesus wept. God feels us in our pain; the love of God is empathic, a ‘feeling with’” (Marjorie Suchocki, “Fifth Sunday in Lent,” April 6, 2014, processandfaith.org). God loves us and cares for us more than we’ll ever know or completely understand.

I want to share another tale of the tomb, one that is also marked by an act of remarkable compassion. I was reminded this week of a powerful film I’ve seen a couple of times in the past year. Its title is “God Loves Uganda.” The film is the work of Academy Award winning documentary director, Roger Ross Williams. Williams is a young, gay, African American, raised in an American Baptist Church. The focus of the film is on the way that certain right-winged, Christian fundamentalists are fueling the homo-hatred that has grown in the past few years in Uganda. This has culminated in virulent anti-gay laws. At one time parliament was considering being gay as a capital crime. If you’re interested in any of this you can see the movie for yourselves. It has been well-received at a number of film festivals around the world, including Sundance.

senyonjo-rick.fwThe story I want to take from the film involves an Anglican bishop named Christopher Senjonyo. I was moved to tears of my own by this excerpt from the movie; then I had the great privilege to meet the bishop last October at the AWAB event in Providence, Rhode Island. For what it’s worth, I consider this man to be a peer of Bishop Tutu and the other great elders who share their wisdom in today’s troubled world. He moves with grace and dignity and is filled with the love of God for God’s world and God’s children. At 82, Bishop Christopher has been stripped of his standing in the Anglican church of Uganda because of his unwavering support for the lgtbtq people of that country. Among other things, after 34 years of service, the church took away his pension.

Another character in the film is a young gay activist. A very courageous soul, Jonathan Hall is eventually murdered. The scenes that touched me so deeply are from Jonathan’s funeral. Before his family, friends and supporters, many of whom were lgbtq, the presiding clergyman proceeded to unleash a homo-hating monologue basically condemning the young man at his own funeral. It is an appalling illustration of the church at its very worst. I can only imagine Jesus wept once more at the cruelty and injustice being perpetrated in his name.

After the service, the scene shifts to a smaller group of friends and family accompanying the casket to the grave site. The offending clergyman is nowhere to be seen, but there, in the middle of the procession, is Bishop Christopher. Arriving at the open grave, the casket is lowered into ground. At this point, Bishop Christopher spontaneously steps forward to offer a blessing. His are simple words of loving grace and compassion for the murdered man and all those suffering the hurt and hatred that has infected his people and their culture. Once more, Christ, in the person of his representative, stands at the tomb of his friend weeping, and then offers the blessing, the word, with the power to heal, to make whole. On that day, resurrection was practiced in the African countryside.

At the end of today’s text, the consequence of Christ’s compassion is revealed. Remember, the outcome of the raising of Lazarus “…was a turnaround for many of the friends who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him. But,” the text continues, “some went back to the Pharisees and told on Jesus. The high priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the…ruling body. ‘What do we do now?’ they asked. ‘This man keeps on doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have.’” So, “from that day on, they plotted to kill him” (John 11:45-48, 53).

In this world there are consequences for living a life of compassion – Jesus knew it; Bishop Christopher knows it, yet they remain faithful. As Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, perhaps he also wept for his own coming abandonment and execution; as the bishop continues to minister in Christ’s name, he is now threatened with seven years in prison for loving and supporting his lgbtq sisters and brothers.

But we also know the story doesn’t end with sealed tombs or prison sentences. Jesus’ cry to “Come out,” the bishop’s prayer of blessing, prove that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate, that resurrection is possible through the Living Word of God. And we, friends, are part of that Living Word, the Body of Christ. Jesus effects the miracle of the raising of his friend, but he leaves a vital part to that community of family and friends gathered round. “You unbind him. You set him free. You work for justice and peace and love and compassion. I’ve given you all you need, now you make it real in your own lives and in the lives of all you encounter.” Not this time. Not this time will death or hate or injustice have the victory, because we have seen the resurrection and the life and it has set us free. Amen.