Not From These Eyes (March 23, 2014)

sermonsNOT FROM THESE EYES: A DRAMA IN FOUR SCENES
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 23, 2014

Texts: John 9  (The Message)

A Beggar’s Story

Blind from birth,
oblivious to realities
beyond my senses;
unable to discern in all things
the imminent Truth
on which all things depend.

A poor beggar
(though without knowing it
a child of the Great King)
pleading for cheap charity
around the temple
from guilty worshippers.

Then I am anointed
by the strong fingers
of a man from out of town,
a chap who is under surveillance
by the proud who throw to beggars
a few unwanted crumbs.

For him I go and wash
and begin to see at last
the Truth that sets us free.
Though they excommunicate me,
I rejoice, for now it’s clear
from whence this Jesus comes.
Bruce Prewer

A drama in four scenes or is it seven? Scholars differ on how we might divide up this rather long story, but no one denies its drama. The encounter of the one born blind and Jesus is transformational. The hearings before the religious authorities are full of tension and the final encounter with the Christ is full of saving grace. The story is both engaging and dramatic. It is also instructive for us who would have our eyes open so that we might see more clearly into the heart of God.

Scene One: Jesus and his entourage come strolling into the village. It is a day not unlike today, with the sun shining, birds singing, flowers blooming and trees welcoming springtime. It’s one of those days when you whistle a happy tune and tell yourself that all is right with the world.

The problem is that, just because your day is going well, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone around the corner who is having a very different day. Sure enough, there he is, a blind beggar, right by the side of the road, pleading for alms, spare change, a handout, “just a little so I can get something to eat. I’m hungry. Please sir. Help me out.” If we were honest we might admit to being just a little irritated at this intrusion on our perfect day. Couldn’t we have one day without the world intruding? I doubt this crossed Jesus’ mind but I will confess it crossed mine.

Clearly, Jesus sees him. He’s pretty hard to miss and Jesus isn’t likely to miss much anyway. He’s tuned into his surroundings. Being grounded in compassion will do that to you. But before he can attend to the need in front of him, his disciples break in with one of those irritating questions: “Whose sin caused this man to be born blind?”

“Will they ever learn?” he mutters under his breath and turns to tell them once again. “That’s stinkin’ thinkin’, friends. How many times have I told you that’s not the way it is with God. God wants us to be complete, whole, whatever physical state we’re in, and God wants us to see God’s way in this world and the next. I came to bring that light into this old world. Let me give you a sign of God’s way.”

This next part is kind of gross. He spits in the dirt and made muddy paste. He puts it right on the man’s eyelids. The man doesn’t ask for it. This time it’s not faith that sets him free. Giving him sight is a pure gift of grace from the compassionate Light of the World. When he washes away the mud this man, who has never seen anything, can see everything. Can you imagine? Have you ever had an experience that approximates this? We love to sing “Amazing Grace,” repeating, with feeling, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” What does it mean to you to sing those words? Do they recall a time in your life when you experienced the kind of transformation that man knew as he washed his face in the pool of Siloam?

Immediately, he goes home, back to the old neighborhood. Everyone he encounters is incredulous. “Is it really you? How can this be? What happened? How did your eyes get opened?”

In amazement all he can say is, “I don’t know.” Thus ends scene one.

Scene two. The religious authorities have gotten wind of this miraculous healing. As is customary in small town politics, religious or otherwise, they want an accounting. They are not comfortable when extraordinary things go down in their neighborhood. They like to be in control and they want to make sure no outsider is challenging their authority. Truth is, we already know that Jesus has garnered such a reputation around the countryside that the ruling religious parties want to silence him. So they call the one born blind to account for himself.

He tells them the same story he told the neighbors. When the authorities realize that this healing has been conducted on the Sabbath, they’re outraged. Now they’ve got him. How dare this upstart challenge their sacred order? “Clearly he’s a heretic. No one can be from God and fail to follow our rules.” The poor beggar is suddenly caught in the middle of a conflict he knows little and cares less about. The authorities turn to him. “Who do you say this healer is?”

Innocently, and perhaps foolishly, he shares his growing insight, “He is a prophet.” Surely they will understand. Not much chance of that! He has stepped in it this time. They don’t like his answer and they are determined to get the bottom of this, which we know means get to their predetermined verdict, condemning this miracle of sight. Scene two ends.

Scene three. They’ve decided that their key witness may be unreliable, probably a little crazy from all those years of blindness and begging. He can’t be seeing clearly. So they call in his parents. Poor mom and pop! Hasn’t it been difficult enough living all these years with the stigma of a handicapped child, people in the village whispering speculations about what they had done to deserve a blind child? Now, before they can even take in their son’s new-found sight, they have been called before the authorities. “What do they want with us? What can we say? We just want to be left in peace.” “We don’t know what to tell you. He’s a big boy, an adult. We don’t know any more than what he’s told us.”

I guess you can’t blame them for wanting to protect what little they have, living amidst the small-town gossip. It’s all they can do to keep the family together and a roof over their heads. They really can’t afford to get caught up in this drama. Sound familiar? Have you ever felt the need to take care of yourself in this way, to draw into a protective shell and hope the world will go away, to laugh at that joke that sits so wrong in your gut, to go along with the gossip that you know is potentially painful to another, to hang out with the bully rather than side with the victim? The man’s parents are just ordinary folk, maybe not so different from you or me.

The man is hauled back before the increasingly irate authorities. They’re less inclined to be subtle at the second hearing. “Bow down before our god, if you know what’s good for you. Don’t you see how important it is to view this affair our way? It’s time for you to ‘name names.’ Identify this charlatan for the imposter for what he is.”

Funny what happens when your eyes are opened and you begin to see – things become clearer and clearer. At least they do for our protagonist. The better he sees the bolder he becomes. “Listen, friends, I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind and now I see.” Sometimes, when we begin to see clearly, the truth is plain and simple. All we can do is share what we see and know to be true.

If you’ve watched crime dramas on TV, you know that a favorite interrogation technique is to make the suspect tell the story over and over again in hopes she’ll slip up and the truth, or at least the particular “truth” wanted by the interrogators, will come out. This can be a way of coercing a confession, whether it’s true or not. It turns out our blind beggar is a pretty clever fellow. There may a tinge of sarcasm now when he confronts the authorities. “I’ve told you over and over and you haven’t listened. Why do you want to hear it again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?”

Ouch! That is definitely not what they wanted to hear. The man has taken a big risk in challenging the authorities who are now furious. They call in their highest trump card. “Don’t you know who we are, boy? Don’t you know we get our authority directly from Moses? Who do think you are to get smart with us? We’re asking the questions here.”

“Be that as it may all I can say is this is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does God’s will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.” The blind beggar schools the religious authorities. He quotes their own tradition back to them in a way for which they have no real response.

When narrow minded bullies are exposed, they become apoplectic in their anger. “You’re nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!” They exercise the last pitiful shred of their presumed power. They call him names and throw him out threw him out in the street. The chaotic conclusion of scene three.

Scene four. Jesus reappears. He hears how badly the poor beggar has been treated and seeks him out. Isn’t that so typical of Jesus, to appear when you need him most? The one born blind is not too offended or damaged by the treatment of the religious authorities. As a tramp on the street, he has heard and experienced much worse. Besides, there is no authority that can take away the sheer joy he experiences as he sees – and understands – more and more.

I believe Jesus knew exactly what kind of man this one was when he healed him. I think Jesus saw clearly his potentiality as a disciple. In fact, Jesus keeps calling the most improbable characters like fishermen and tax collectors and women with shady reputations to follow him. I believe he does this because he sees right through their facades to the richly gifted souls beneath. The man born blind is one of those richly gifted souls.

“Do you believe in the One sent from God?”

Relishing in his new found vision, he responds, “Just show him to me and I’ll believe.”

“Here I am, standing in front of you.”

And you know what that poor blind beggar who has been through the wringer does? He falls on his knees in worship. He sees and he SEES! He sees with the eyes in his head but he also sees with the eyes of his heart. He is now certain that his testimony before the authorities was right and true. The One who healed him was truly sent from God. How could it be otherwise? And now he could not only see, he was made whole in the presence of the Christ.

“I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”

“Not from these eyes can any other grace be seen nor from these lips can any other truth proclaimed. I believe. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The drama is concluded. Amen.

Not When I’m Old (March 16, 2014)

sermonsNOT WHEN I’M OLD
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Texts: John 3:1-17

NICODEMUS HAD HEARD ENOUGH about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep.

So Nicodemus was fairly safe, and, at least at the start of their nocturnal interview, Jesus was fairly patient. What the whole thing boiled down to, Jesus told him, was that unless you got born again, you might as well give up.

That was all very well, Nicodemus said, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? He even got a little sarcastic. Could one “enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” he asked (John 3:4), when it was all one could do to enter a taxi without the driver’s coming around to give him a shove from behind?

Frederick Buechner

  The older I get, the more I understand the time-worn adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  It is not at all uncommon for us to get set in our ways the longer we’re around.  Older, single people like myself face those facts when we stop to think what it would be like to live with someone else, to let another person into our space, our rituals and routines, our habits and patterns.  It would be so hard to change. There are moments when we just look in the mirror and say, “Let life go on the way we know.”  It’s easier to follow the familiar than to face changing life-styles.

Am I wrong about that?  For those of us who have been around for awhile the prospect of change often feels like more than we can handle, especially if we’ve grown comfortable with familiar routines.  Don’t ask me to do this differently.  Don’t expect me to learn the latest.  Don’t rock the boat.  How many of us feel challenged, if not overwhelmed, by the latest technology and the proliferation of information?   I know I’ve barely touched the surface of what my computer, my smart phone, my tablet can do.  It’s embarrassing to admit.  Sometimes we long for a slower, gentler time when we could read books printed on paper and talk to one another face to face.  Sometimes change just seems overwhelming.

I think something like that occurs in this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus.  When Jesus talks of new birth, Nicodemus protests, “Not when I’m old.  It’s too much, all that you are asking me to take in, to understand, to practice.”  I love this story.  It is among my favorite Bible stories, and not just because it contains John 3:16, that Bible verse-slogan that we learned in Sunday School so long ago that promises to hold the gospel in a “nutshell.”  I love it for the characters and the interaction.  Today, and for the next several weeks, through Easter, we will consider a collection of stories in which Jesus shares profound truth with complex and fascinating human characters.  The first is Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is part of the 1% in the Jerusalem of his time.  It appears that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and comes from one of those wealthy families who held power and influence over the Jewish people as well as with the Roman occupiers.  Already we know that he is not altogether an insider because he is named as a member of the Pharisaic party.  At this time the Sadducean party holds sway over the temple and dominates religious practice.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus is something of a reformer, in spite of his wealth and power.  He is said to be a scholar, a learned teacher.

What I see in Nicodemus is a hungry heart.  I think he is one of those people whom Jesus blesses because they hunger and thirst for righteousness.  As an old man, encumbered with all the trappings of family and office, there is still something in him that desires to know God better and to walk God’s way more faithfully.  He is a seeker after truth.  As my friend Phil Jenks notes, “Unlike most other Pharisees, who were cocksure they were right and Jesus was wrong, Nicodemus continued to nurse his doubts” (Philip E. Jenks, “Nicodemus, the Doubter,” The Little Scroll, March 15, 2014, portchester.patch.com). Nicodemus wonders and when he hears about this peasant rabbi from Galilee, about the signs and teaching and healing, he wonders all the more if there might be something here to satisfy his hunger.

Now Nicodemus is no radical.  He knows there is risk, even danger in being seen with Jesus.  The rumblings and plots against Jesus have already been hatched.  But Nicodemus is curious enough to be drawn to this new teacher in hopes he has something to say that will touch the old man in the depths of his wondering.  So, he comes to Jesus under cover of night.  It’s a secret meeting.  Jesus grants a private audience to this closeted seeker and proceeds to share with him some of the deep truth of the good news.

It all begins respectfully enough.  Nicodemus confesses that he sees Jesus as one sent by God.  This would be heresy to claim in his usual circles but here in the silence of their midnight encounter, he blurts out his faith stance, “I want to believe.  Help my unbelief.”  The conversation unfolds in such a way that Jesus is really hard on the old man.  Is Nicodemus dense or just resistant in his responses?  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” “How can these things be?”

Jesus seems rather impatient when he scolds the old man.  “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  It feels like a sarcastic response.  What is Jesus sensing in Nicodemus that he is so hard on him?  In one way, we’ll never know this side of glory.  At this point, Nicodemus disappears from the story as Jesus continues to teach.  Does the old man take his wounded pride and leave in a huff?  Does he sit and listen as Jesus holds forth?  Do they continue in conversation?  We just don’t know for certain, which leaves us dangerously free to speculate.

I think a big piece of what’s going on here is that Jesus senses Nicodemus’s ambivalence to change and challenges him hard.  There is some of this “Not when I’m old” on the part of Nicodemus and Jesus is saying, “Why not?  You are still learned, wise and powerful.  You could make a tremendous difference if you walked God’s way with me.”  But Nicodemus is just not sure he’s ready to go that far.  Perhaps, it’s that his spirit is willing but his flesh is weak.  He has a lot to lose if he follows Jesus.  So, Jesus confronts him with the truth and leaves it with the “teacher of Israel” to decide for himself.

I also love Frederick Buechner’s somewhat irreverent take on the text, ‘”Maybe Nicodemus had six honorary doctorates and half a column in Who’s Who,’ Jesus said, ‘but if he couldn’t see something as plain as the nose on his face, he’d better go back to kindergarten.’”  Here’s the good news that Nicodemus gets to grasp or not, according to Buechner, “Jesus said, ‘I’m telling you God’s so in love with this world that he’s sent me down, so if you don’t believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe mine, maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life’” (Frederick Buechner, “Weekly Sermon Illustrations: Nicodemus, May 17, 2012,” frederickbuechner.com).

Come to life – what a gift, what a challenge!  Surely not when I’m old. Yes, even then.  There is always more light, more life, more love to embrace. Buechner’s next lines are beautifully, movingly speculative.  He says of the old teacher of Israel, “What impressed Nicodemus even more than [Jesus’] speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn’t felt like that since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born.”

Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but imagine how you might feel in the shoes of Nicodemus.  Living beyond your wounded pride at being scolded by this young, rural rabbi, you hear these amazing words of eternal life and they ring true in ways you have never heard or even imagined before.  Jesus gifts you with the way to love and life – God’s love, abundant and eternal life.  How would you “come to, come clean, come to life”?

Another friend, Carl Gregg, has written that the word “so” in “God so loved the world” does not mean God loved the world “so much,” as we often interpret it.  Rather, he says, the word in Greek means “in this way.”  So, Jesus is saying “God loved the world in this way…” (Carl Gregg, “John 3:16 – The Rest of the Story, March 18, 2012,” patheos.com).   This is how God loved the world; this is the way God loved the world…  One way to look at it is that God sent God’s only child to show the way.  When all the arguments of law and prophet, of scripture and tradition, of icon and idol, had failed to convince God’s people, God came in person to proclaim the good news and lead us into God’s commonwealth.  Remember, this is this same John who begins his gospel, “…the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Before I close, let me quote a passage from one more friend, Meg Hess.  Listen to her challenge to the old teacher as if she was speaking to you.  She writes, “Confusion is the unintended consequence of your curiosity, Nicodemus, but don’t stop there. Think about it: if you are born again, then you must grow up again. Think about your life, Nicodemus. What would you do differently if you had half the chance? How would you grow up differently? How would you re-edit the narrative of your life? As you enter more deeply into your puzzlement, Nicodemus, you’ll find that Jesus is inviting you to be curious about your life, and to rethink your assumptions with an altered perspective. You are challenged not only to conduct an autopsy on your past, but to look to the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility. How might your life be different if you were born again? How would your life be altered if you truly believed, from the beginning, that God loves you with a sacrificial love?” (Margaret B. Hess, “A Curious Man,” The Christian Century, May 14, 1997, p. 475).

To see the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility.  To believe truly that God loves you with sacrificial love.  Open your eyes, Nicodemus.  Even more, open your mind, your heart, your life.  Here is the truth before you in the flesh.  Don’t you see, understand, feel, know the living truth when you encounter it?  Yes, I know you’re old.  Yes, I know change is challenging.  Yes, I know you are comfortable and set in your ways.  But remember that hunger in your heart, that deep desire for more, that longing for right living, led by the very Spirit of the Holy.  Here it is.  What do you say?  I believe you can teach an old dog new tricks.  Or if that’s too glib for you, I do believe you can teach an old teacher new truths.  Yes, Nicodemus even when you’re old.  Amen.

Loving as Jesus Loved

absw_logoAfter a particularly trying week last week, this week has seemed calmer.  Beautiful weather helps, as do the many words of affirmation and hope that people have penned.  As followers of Jesus, we are caught up in the very specific challenge to love one another, in particular, our enemies.  This is never easy and the closer, more real, more evil our enemies seem, the more difficult the challenge.  I want to focus on two of the lectionary texts this week.  The first is Jesus “new commandment” as recorded in John 13, to “love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you.”  That little qualifier at the end of the sentence throws the challenge of love into an entirely different dimension.  We know something of love from our individual collective experiences, but to love as Jesus loved?  With the same compassion, forgiveness, grace?  That is going to take some work!

I see the story of Peter and Cornelius, as recounted in Acts 11, as a very specific illustration of what “loving as Jesus loved” might look like.  Peter is challenged to grow far beyond his comfort zone in the service of a God who is much more inclusive than Peter had ever imagined.  “You just keep bringing the good news, Peter.  God will make sure there is room at the table for everyone who hears and desires to join in the feast.”

We also have the privilege of having Robert Wilkins with us Sunday to share an update on the American Baptist Seminary of the West.  Robert, who heads the YMCA of the East Bay is a delightful person.  I hope you will all stay to hear him in the Adult Spiritual Formation hour.

See you on Sunday at 10 as we as we gather as Christ’s beloved community.  Invite someone to come with you.

May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.
Pastor Rick