A Note from Pastor Gregory

Gregory StevensI’m sitting at my desk with one of our pew-Bibles open to the Gospel attributed to Mark.

Before Jesus has even uttered a word, Mark’s story has situated him historically and culturally in the wilderness with the wild, camel-hair-wearing John the baptizer as his predecessor. In a few short paragraphs, Jesus denies Satan’s offer of imperial power, calls working class fisherman as his disciples, includes the unwanted man of Capernaum and outcasts throughout Galilee, practices contemplative morning prayer, and joyfully wraps his healing arms around a leper. I haven’t even turned the page yet.

When the second chapter begins on the next page, Jesus welcomes a paralytic man into wholeness, calls a tax swindler to give up his senseless ways, and subverts the popular orthodoxy around Sabbath teachings by acting out in love.

Now we’re just on the third page of the Gospel attributed to Mark, and Jesus has already turned his religion, his culture, and the political atmosphere upside down.

I wonder what it means to have this kind of Jesus-imagination in today’s world. I wonder how American politics might change if Americans read the stories of Jesus. I wonder why Christians haven’t given more credit to alternative economic systems, ones that work for the very same blue-collar fisherman Jesus called as his disciples. I wonder why Jesus was famous for healing the sick, but many of today’s vocal Christians are anti-free-health care. I wonder what happened to the Jesus so easily found on just the first two pages of Mark’s gospel—dare we turn the page even further?

Pastor Gregory


Rotten Religion

13-06-01.mixon.fwA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Text: Mark 13:1-8 (The Message)

1 As he walked away from the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! Those buildings!” 2 Jesus said, “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.” 3-4 Later, as he was sitting on Mount Olives in full view of     the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew got him off by himself and asked, “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?” 5-8 Jesus began, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One.’ They will deceive a lot of people. When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.

This past weekend, Riverside Church in New York City celebrated its 85th anniversary. Now that’s not so old by many standards – not as old as the cathedrals of Europe or the Pyramids nor has it lasted as long as the temple in Jerusalem. I chose to picture it on the cover of today’s bulletin because it was on my mind and comes as close to representing the temple as any structure I know. I attended services there off and on while I was in college. I believe the first time I saw it I uttered something like the disciple who said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! The stained glass! The vaulted ceiling! The organ! Those buildings!”

Riverside Church is a magnificent structure. I’m not sure what Jesus would say about it, but I’m guessing he would be more concerned with the religion practiced there than with its grandeur, more focused on its ministry than its majesty, more apt to care how it serves God’s people than how it stands in matchless beauty. This is not to say good things can’t come from a beautiful place. We have committed ourselves to making ministry in and of the building bequeathed to us. I have a feeling that the Riverside community is trying to do the same. Still our facilities are neither permanent nor are they what ought to define us. This is related to what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples in today’s text.

“…the walls came tumbling down.” Only this time the destruction was not a victory for the children of Israel, it was a crushing defeat. Their magnificent temple lay in ruin at the hands of their Roman oppressors, the ultimate act punishment for their ill-considered rebellion.

According to Mark, Jesus predicted these events, but did he? It’s difficult, probably impossible, for us to have a definitive answer to this question. Perhaps Mark gives this text to Jesus in order to strengthen the focus of what Mark wants to say to his own community. It may be that this gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple and Mark thought there was a lesson to be learned from the rubble. Is he putting words in Jesus’ mouth? Is he drawing on an older tradition that attributed this prophecy to Jesus? Could Jesus really see into the future and predict the destruction to come? Instead of spending our time on this conundrum, let’s look at this text from a different perspective. How does the text fit into the fabric of Mark’s gospel? How does it move forward what Mark is trying to say to his community – and to us – after the walls have tumbled?

Over the past several weeks the lectionary has focused on Mark’s gospel. We have been journeying with Jesus as he enters Jerusalem and faces the end of his earthly ministry. In chapter 11, Mark reports Jesus’ triumphal entry into the ancient city. After looking things over, he retires to Bethany for the night. The next day he re-enters the city and goes straight to the temple where he overturns the tables of the “money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” His proclamation – “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:15-17). Thus begins a week of direct confrontation of the religious authorities and the temple system. By implication, Jesus seems to see theirs as rotten religion.

It is not entirely clear what Jesus’ intent was in disrupting the activity of the temple. Maybe his intention was to cleanse it of impurity, of a kind of cultic practice that abandoned the spirit of Jewish tradition and the truth of its law, making a mockery of its form. But then, maybe his intention was to announce the end of temple worship altogether with the promise of the God’s Beloved Community as an alternative. Given Jesus’ harsh critique of the religious authorities and temple practice, I tend to favor the latter view. This may be an entirely anachronistic reading on my part but I think for Jesus the religious practices of his day had become rotten beyond redemption.

Now to be clear, I am not at all suggesting that Jesus thought Judaism itself was rotten. Remember he was a Jew and never made any claim for starting a new religion. However, Jesus does not seem pleased with what had been done to the faith of his ancestors. And the religious authorities were certainly not pleased with him. In fact, after his action in the Temple, the text says, “…when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:18).

Last week we considered how Jesus excoriated the scribes for their self-aggrandizing hypocrisy. His attack on temple practices directly affected the priestly caste, especially those who literally ran the temple and presumably benefited socially and financially from its culture and trade. Alan Culpepper cites three ways these practices represented rotten religion. “First,” he says, “there was the poison of using worship as a means to something else. The merchants of piety were buying and selling inside the temple. They found worship to be a reliable means to prosperity.” He argues that “Treating worship as a means poisons it and leaves it as barren as polluted waters or a fruitless fig tree.”

Given the physical organization of the temple into a hierarchy of courtyards and chambers, he sees “The second poison that led to the condemnation of the temple [as] the poison of observing social distinctions in God’s presence.” He claims, “The temple itself was designed to enforce social exclusivism…The entire structure of the temple was therefore calculated to enforce social distinctions of race, sex, and family status.” Again, he argues that Jesus would have “viewed the observance of such distinctions in the presence of God as obscene.”

As we noted last week in considering the scribes as religious authorities “the third poison that permeated the temple was hypocrisy. People sought to use worship to appease God.” Culpepper says, “They recognized their sinfulness but resolved to continue in it. They worshiped merely to attempt to placate God and so perhaps find sanctuary for their sinfulness in God’s house” (R. Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark, p. 389ff.) Of course none of these charges would ever apply to us. No one in modern religious practice seeks to profit from the faith, to elevate their status at the expense of others or to exercise a hypocritical front to cover their own shortcomings.

All this is stirring in Jesus when an unidentified disciple comments on the splendor of the temple. Jesus’ heart must have sunk at such a remark. Had they not been listening? Had they heard anything he’d said, seen anything he’d done? Well, time was drawing short. Let me once more tell them how it is, but this time in more dramatic terms: “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.”

What in the world can he mean by this? A little later, Peter, John, James and Andrew take him aside and ask for an explanation. “The time is coming when none of this will stand, in fact, none of this will matter. Remember the time I told the Samaritan woman, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship for God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth’?” (John 4:21-24)

“You see big change is coming. Some will see that change as catastrophic. Things like earthquakes, famine, wars and rumors of war all happen. We know that. Still, practitioners of rotten religion, whether certified or charlatans, will try to convince you that these are signs of the times and you should follow them. But don’t be fooled. True worshipers worship in spirit and truth, in faith and humility, in compassion and love. Remember the great commandments, the foundation of real religion – love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as you would your very self? You need neither temple nor any other elaborate structure to practice such religion. This is religion to serve God and all of God’s creation.”

Bill Herzog writes of today’s text, “No building is imperishable, not even the temple. It can be torn down stone by stone, which is exactly what the Romans did when they razed Jerusalem in 70 CE. But,” he continues, “the people of God are imperishable, they will outlast any building…the rulers…overlooked the most valuable ‘stones’ in their kingdoms, the people they exploited and discarded. Jesus would use these stones to build a very different edifice a movement that would become the cornerstone of God’s renewing work” (William R. Herzog II, Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus, p. 204).

Isn’t this the challenge to us as we seek to be the church today? We have been too long hung up on the trappings of our traditions – on buildings and numbers on institutional structures and maintaining the right reputation. We want to be respectable Baptists, if that’s possible. But how often have our hang-ups and desires led us to practice rotten religion? How many have turned their backs on the church and, with it, the faith because of poisonous practice? If we want to be relevant and meaningful to sinners and seekers, Gods people all, don’t we need to make sure we worship in spirit and in truth before recognizing any other claim on our time and energy? Could we become “stones” to build up a movement dedicated to God’s renewing work in the world? When the tempest rages, can we provide shelter from the storm? Can we stand for justice and righteousness, for peace and compassion, for love that transforms everything it touches and makes it good?

While it is true that we have a building both to care for and to make good use of in the name of Jesus, the Christ, it won’t us to sing Ken Medema’s challenging invitation now and then. It’s just a little reminder for us to steer clear of any practice of rotten religion.

Come build a church with love and spirit,
come build a church of flesh and bone.
We need no tower rising skyward;
no house of wood or glass or stone.

Come build a church of human frailty.
come build a church of flesh and blood.
Jesus shall be its sure foundation.
It shall be built by the hand of God.


The Curious Case of the Copper Coins

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

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Text: Mark 12:38-44 (The Message)

He continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”     

Sitting across from the offering box, he was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”

You’ve heard me say before how much I enjoy mysteries, especially British mysteries on public television. Today’s text is not quite a Sherlock Homes or Miss Marple mystery but, in the end, Mark’s Jesus leaves us to solve for ourselves the curious case of the copper coins. How is this so? What’s the mystery here? Isn’t this the classic tale of one who gives her all for her faith? That’s what we’ve always heard.

But evolving biblical scholarship suggests that there might be another interpretation to bring to this ancient word. Let’s go back to the beginning. The reading opens with Jesus excoriating the scribes, the religious scholars, for their self-centeredness. Now we must be careful not to lump all scribes into this critical category. Just a few verses before Jesus has encouraged a scribe for his wise understanding of the heart of the Torah – to love God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as one’s self. But apparently that scribe was an exception. As a class, Jesus sees them as a problem for the practice of Jewish faith in the first century.

Alan asked in Bible study what a scribe was. In his commentary, Alan Culpepper writes, “The scribes appear in Mark to be…more often priests or Levites than Pharisees…they were probably not a unified group, although at times the Gospels convey the impression that they were…Originally, a scribe was one who could read and write…By the New Testament period they were the respected stewards of a sacred lore—the Scriptures, esoteric teachings, and the oral traditions. They handled legal matters, produced documents, advised priests and civil authorities, and were recognized as teachers. The people greeted them in deference when they passed” (R. Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark, p. 425).

“Watch out for [these] religious scholars,” Jesus warns. “They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function.” Well, you can see how this might make religious leaders uncomfortable. Just Look around. Here I am in my robe and stole. We’ve got some thrones and an elevated pulpit up there where I could preside. And then, there is the danger of long-winded, self-serving prayers or sermons, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There is a place for religious ritual, for leadership in worship, for elements that are out of the ordinary, reserved for sacred practice. But you can imagine how silly I would look wearing my vestments down California Street to the Farmer’s Market, making a big deal of my set-aside status, insisting that people treat me with deference, always elevating myself above the masses and demanding a place at the head table. I know the parallel is not exact in our much more secularized context but you get the point. I hope that I am rarely, if ever, guilty of such practices, but the warning is well-taken.

I don’t think Jesus wants to challenge sincere religious practice, but in Jesus’ time the religious practices of the dominant forces in Judaism had become too much of a hollow structure that missed the meaning of God’s given word. God’s temple was meant to be a “house of prayer for all people, but you have made it a den of thieves and robbers,” Jesus rails at the sellers and the money changers in the Temple courtyard. Culpepper writes, “The temple was the major industry of Jerusalem. Pilgrims came to pray, to offer sacrifices, and to pay their tithes. In a sense, temples functioned like national treasuries. They were also similar to banks in that the treasuries included private deposits, and the temple in Jerusalem, like other temples, had been raided for its wealth on several occasions “(Culpepper, op. cit., p. 428).

In his critique of the religious practice of his day, Jesus says these religious scholars were addicted to self-aggrandizement and often at the expense of the people whom they were meant to serve. Jesus’ final jab, the most damning, is that “they are exploiting the weak and helpless” – specifically widows. To some degree, widows stood for all who were both poor and pious, those who had little or nothing and yet remained faithful. You can see how the widow in this story represents this category. Over and over Hebrew scriptures exhort the Jewish people to care for widows, orphans and strangers in the land. This would be the kind of adherence to God’s word that too many of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day failed to exercise as they fine-tuned their reputations and feathered their own nests.

The New Revised Standard Version reads that Jesus accuses the scribes of “devouring widows’ houses.” This seems like a strange image until we understand the very specific ways in which scribes could, and did, exploit widows. Quoting Joseph Fitzmyer, Culpepper lists six ways scribes might have taken advantage of impoverished widows. They could have taken “payment for legal aid to widows even though such payment was forbidden.” Scribes were known to cheat “widows of what was rightly theirs.” Specifically, “as lawyers, they were acting as guardians appointed by a husband’s will to care for the widow’s estate.” They took advantage of “the hospitality of these women of limited means.” They “mismanaged the property of widows like Anna who dedicated themselves to the service of the Temple.” In a particularly offensive practice, they “took large sums of money from trusting old women as a reward for the prolonged prayer which they professed to make on their behalf.” And finally, they literally could take widows’ “houses as pledges for debts which could not be paid’ (Quoted in Culpepper, op. cit. p. 426).

So here is the mystery for us to unravel. When the widow in Mark’s story drops into the offering plate those two copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny, but still all she has, what is she doing? And, perhaps more importantly, what is Jesus seeing, sitting there opposite the Temple treasury with its 13 opulent offering boxes, each marked for its own particular purpose? Is hers an act of pure devotion by someone who is both poor and pious? Without obviously praising her action, Jesus observes “…she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.” Did she do it as a demonstration of her faithfulness? Does Jesus see one willing to pay the price, to give it all, as he himself will soon be called to do? Is this a sacred act that goes beyond what is expected or can be easily understood? What deep love for God could impel her to give all that she has?

Or is she dropping these two tiny coins in the offering plate out of a sense of obligation to some religious rule or practice that demands that she pay her debt, regardless of her ability to shoulder or even survive such a sacrifice? Is she paying off something at the insistence of some scribe? Most odious, is this the price for a prolonged prayer purportedly prayed on her behalf? Is Jesus deeply offended at the injustice and exploitation this widow is experiencing at the hand of those who are meant to care for her?

Culpepper likens these two passages to “a legal brief” with “a judge’s ruling.” Jesus brings the charges against the religious scholars, “showing cause for the decision that comes in Jesus’ last statement: therefore ‘they will receive the greater condemnation’” – or, as The Message says, “they’ll pay for it in the end.” He concludes “In God’s court, the severest sentences are reserved for those to whom much has been entrusted, to those who know better, to those who are trusted by others, and to those who have been called to minister in God’s name” (Culpepper. op. cit., p. 426).

Micah Kiel says of this tale that “Widows are often provided as the example par excellence as those to whom caring justice should be meted out.” So, the story addresses a matter of justice combined with compassion for those in need. Kiel continues, “It is interesting that, in Deuteronomy 14:28-29, certain of the Jewish leaders (in this case, the Levites) are listed as among the aliens, orphans and widows who need support from the community because they have devoted themselves entirely to God” (Micah D. Kiel, “Commentary on Mark 12:38-44,” November 11, 2012, workingpreacher.org). Is this the case with our mysterious widow? Is she to be counted among those who need support, not only in her dire poverty but also because she has devoted herself “entirely to God”?

This is a hard lesson and it is right and just. We know, as did those religious leaders so long ago, that much is expected of those to whom much has been given. Regardless of how you read the curious case of the copper coins, the word for those of us who are privileged is to care for the widow and orphan and stranger, the least and the lost, our neighbors in need. This is fundamental to what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Yes, it may cost us something, even our foolish pride. We may have to make do with a little less, to take a place at the back of the line, to make room for someone whose need trumps our vanity.

Now just to be clear, I am not lumping any of us with those religious leaders Jesus challenges. I hope for us this is a cautionary tale, a reminder of what it means to follow Jesus, to love our neighbor, to work for the Beloved Community. If we need any further reminder, we might take heart from that view of the widow as one whose devotion overshadows even her deepest need. Without glorifying her poverty and any system that exploits her, we still might see in her a deep-seated belief that one “cannot live by bread alone.” If that’s her choice, we must respect it. At the same time we venerate her self-giving, however, we must also move to insure her survival. We must feed and clothe and shelter her for, not only is that the ancient law of love, that also becomes the measure of our own devotion.

The curious case of the copper coins – it remains a mystery. Perhaps we have shed a little light on it today. You decide for yourself – a call to devotion, a call for justice, two cents worth of each? What ending will you write for the tale?

Preparing for Advent

Rev. Rick MixonThank you to Doug and Hegene Lee who gave us an excellent report on socially responsible entrepreneurship and their experiences in Haiti. The specific project has to do with providing potable water for villages in Haiti and a company that is providing that. We learned about the company, Ovide, its founder, Stanford grad Jimmy Chu and the work Hegene did as an inter, cleaning and filling water containers. We also saw some of Hegene’s excellent photography.

This Sunday we will tackle one of those tough texts, Mark’s “little apocalypse” in the 13th chapter. The disciples are much impressed with the grandeur and beauty of the temple but Jesus has a very different perspective. He foresees it’s destruction. Of course, Mark’s gospel may well have been written after that destruction actually occurred in AD 70. Regardless, for Mark Jesus is making a remark about what matters in religion. His comment flows naturally from the conversations he has been having with some of the practitioners of temple worship who don’t seem to get what it’s really all about. We’ll try to unpack some of this Sunday.

After worship, we will hold an Advent Planning Workshop in which you are all invited to participate – children, youth and adults. The over all theme this year is “Love Came Down.” We share a little about the “big picture,” then break into smaller groups to work on the worship services for Advent. We hope you will have ideas about liturgy (prayers and readings,) songs, décor, creative activities, etc. We would like for Advent to be as meaningful for all of us as possible, We will likely go to till 1:00 PM this Sunday to provide for plenty of time for sharing. You may remember that we did something like this a couple of years ago, led by our intern, Naomi Schulz and found it added a lot to our Advent experience.

See you Sunday at 10:00 AM ready to worship, learn and share. Bring someone with you.

May we continue to grow together as God’s people.
Pastor Rick


Let Me See- Again (10/25/15)

A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Text: Job 42:1-6; Mark 10:46-52

“Let me see again.” It seems to me that this is both the quest of Job and the cry of Bartimaeus and so we find these texts linked today. Last week, we reviewed the ancient story of Job – how he was on top of the world at one moment and crying out from dust and ashes the next. He seems to be the pawn in some cruel game played by Yahweh and the Satan. He neither understands nor accept the injustice of his pain and suffering, but he will not turn his back on God. He continues to speak out, pleading with God for answers. We considered how God finally speaks from the whirlwind, offering Job neither satisfaction nor comfort. I argued that it may be simply that God responds to Job at all that produces a measure of healing, transformation, salvation. At the very least God draws Job out of his self-absorbed suffering and gives him a new perspective. There is a powerful acknowledgement of Job’s worth in the encounter itself.

Now we come to the last chapter of the book. Job makes his second response to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” It is both a humble and a wise response. Job’s eyes are opened – in a great symbolic opening – to the majesty of God, the wonders of creation, the limitations and the possibilities of human capacity to know and understand. God let’s Job see again what it means to be a human being in relationship with the living God – but with new eyes, new insight, new understanding. “I had a vague idea but now I see in ways I never imagined before.”

The tension between Yahweh and Job, between God and humanity, between the holy and the lowly is unresolvable, but we have the capacity to live with that tension, to see beyond what we understand and follow the vision into God’s future. Samuel Balentine writes, “The idea that faith permits, indeed sometimes requires, one to argue with God is seldom endorsed by the religious establishment.” But, he continues, “I am…inclined to say that what Job has learned is that humankind may image God not by acquiescing to innocent suffering but rather by protesting it, contending with the powers that occasion it, and, when necessary, taking the fight directly to God. It is such power, courage and resolve that God seems to commend to Job…” (Samuel E. Balentine, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Job, p. 698, 697).

To say that Job “despises” himself and “repents in dust and ashes” is one very challengeable translation of the Hebrew original. It may be that this is a hyperbolic way of expressing his new-found humility. However, another, that makes more sense to me, is that Job sees himself clearly as a creature of value and repents, not so much of his pride as of his resort to living in “dust and ashes.” With renewed vision, he rejects his victim status and understands that, even in his distress, he is made in the image and likeness of God, a little lower than the angels. Of course that does not entitle him to see equality with the Creator as within his grasp. Still there is something uniquely wonderful built into his humanity that lifts him out of the “dust and ashes” and puts him on a different path. I relinquish dust and ashes to live in the light of your glory and the wonder of your ways, O God.

I’m skipping the epilogue today because I think it somehow cheapens Job’s great grasp of truth and wonder gained from his encounter with God. The epilogue leads us back to the very system of punishment and reward that Job’s friends tried to lay on him. “You must have done something wrong to bring on so much calamity. That system has been undone in what is spoken from the whirlwind. Let’s just sit with that magnificent insecurity of knowing and not knowing that in the end seems to satisfy Job. He has grown, matured, into a different sort of faith than the one dependent on rewards and punishments. He has been face to face to with God and lived to tell the tale.

It is another suffering one that Jesus encounters on the Jericho road, headed toward Jerusalem. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, about as low as you can get on the social scale. We are not told how, but we no he was not born that way. Like Job, he may have been a man of wealth and position before he lost his sight. You can be sure that there were plenty who believed he had done something wrong to bring this fate on himself.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer, quick and sure, is “…let me see again.” He has at least some distant memory of what it’s like to see and he is desperate to see again.

Bartimaeus is like Job in that he insists on speaking out. He will not be quiet. Sometimes desperate situations demand desperate actions. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” The more the crowd tries to shut him up, the louder he cries. Job kept pleading his case until he got God’s attention and response. Bartimaeus keeps crying out until Jesus hears him and calls him over. What do you want. Job? To be seen and heard and made whole. What do you want Bartimaeus? To be heard and seen and made whole. It is an ancient and familiar story. See me, hear me, heal me. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Have mercy on me, O God. Have compassion on me, O Christ.

Let me see again. In both stories the healing happens in the encounter. Indeed, each is brought to sight in his encounter with the Holy, though in different ways. If we forego the epilogue of Job, his healing comes in the way God takes him seriously, opens his eyes, gives him wisdom and understanding. If everything he lost is restored, that’s just icing on the cake. The real substance is his proclamation, ”I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. You have come close to me, my God and now I know you in ways I never knew were possible. This is enough.” Like Jacob, Job has wrestled with God and come away both wounded and blessed.

In her commentary on the gospel of Mark, May Ann Tolbert suggests that one function of the story of Bartimaeus is to contrast the faith of the disciples and that of the blind man. Mark’s gospel recounts that this is Jesus’ last encounter before he enters Jerusalem to face his final week. She argues that the disciples in this gospel are exceedingly dense, slow to see and slower to respond to what Jesus is trying to teach them. As they approach the end of this phase of their journey together, she suggests that the disciples follow in fear. In contrast, Bartimaeus follows in faith. In seeing again, he sees further and deeper in the moment than the disciples have in three years. How many of the disciples were among those who ordered Bartimaeus to keep quiet? Don’t bother Jesus. He doesn’t have time for one like you. We’ve heard them utter such orders before only to be overruled by the Compassionate One. “Call him here” and they change their tune. “Take heart, Bartimaeus; get up, he is calling you.” What an unnecessary word. Bartimaeus is up and on his way before they can finish their extraneous instructions. He has already begun to see, even before Jesus opens his eyes.

The invitation is enough to help him see that this encounter will change his life forever. He is healed in his very recognition of Jesus’ power to heal. He sees the Messiah clearly in ways that the disciples do not yet see. Tolbert writes, “Like the disciples, Bartimaeus is named, called, and follows Jesus on the way; like the [other] ones healed, he initiates the action, expresses confident belief, is commanded to go, for his faith has saved him. He is the last who has become first, the epitome of the good earth and the faithful follower. He is what the Twelve are not, the fruitful ground, not the rocky ground” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary Historical Perspective, p. 192).

With Job, Bartimaeus can proclaim, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you,” except for him that is now both literally and symbolically true. Let me see again, not only with my eyes but also with the eyes of my heart. Let my seeing be both practical and visionary, functional and faithful. Is this a prayer we might share with Job and Bartimaeus – let me see again – perhaps for the first time or with new eyes or a deeper faith or higher hopes or Christ-like compassion or Godly grace? “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you,” and I am forever changed.

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.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

“’Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Amen.

“Your Faith Has Made You Whole”

Well this has been a quieter week than the last. We had a good Quarterly Business Meeting on Sunday. Thanks to Gregory for his excellent update after 6 weeks on the job. Among other things we voted to send some of the Annex Fund Mission money to Freedom House, a local program that provides transitional housing for women and girls freed from human trafficking. As we get closer to the Super Bowl which will be played in our backyard next year, I believe we will hear more and more about efforts to contain the usual influx of human trafficking that comes with such an event. We have asked that our money be designated for the house (in Santa Clara County) that houses minors. We will also be hearing more about this issue from the Mission Task Team and our friend, Charlotte Jackson, who has been through intensive training on this issue.

Sunday we will re-visit the text that Dr. Forbes mentioned a couple of weeks ago – the story of blind Bartimaeus from Mark’s gospel. This is one of those times when Jesus proclaims to the one healed, “You’re faith has made you whole.” Are there ways in which our own faith serves to make us whole – maybe even when we don’t get the healing we hope for? Without question, Bartimaeus was going to be heard and seen. He was at least going to plead his case, much like Job before him.

Gregory will be leading Adult Spiritual Formation as we begin a new twelve part series from the Living the Questions folk. This one is entitled Saving Jesus Redux, in which various scholars lead us in search of a “credible” Jesus for the 21st century. This week’s session is “Jesus through the Ages.”

Come, Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship and Sunday School and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation. Share the joy with your family friends, colleagues, neighbors or a stranger off the street.

May we continue to grow together as God’s people.
Pastor Rick

Make Room for the Kids

Rev. Rick MixonA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, October 4 2015

Text: Mark 10:13-16

Observant fellow that he is, when I asked Chip to read the scripture today, he pointed out that I had left out the first part of the reading – and that is true. You see the lectionary actually gives us Mark 10:2-16 as the gospel text for today, but I really didn’t want to deal with this difficult text about divorce om World Communion Sunday, a day in which I hope we can celebrate the joy of being embraced and held by Jesus in the wonder of the Beloved Community of God.

Let me say this word about the verses dealing with divorce. First, there context is first century Palestine, a culture with social structures radically different from our own. One cannot draw easy parallels about the meaning of marriage and divorce from that time to ours. Second, the Pharisees who challenge Jesus with the question about divorce are not interested in having a meaningful discussion about the issue; they are trying to catch him in a heretical statement they can use against him. As usual, he deftly sidesteps their trap.

Third, there is the placement of this discussion in a literary context in which the writer of Mark is trying to show how Jesus’ mission was to include the least and the lost, the broken and needy in God’s Beloved Community. This grouping of teachings begins with Jesus taking a child in his arms and proclaiming, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). It includes the teaching about divorce, which among other things, lifts up the plight of women in this culture and ends with his rebuke of the disciples for blocking those parents who were trying to bring their little ones to him for a blessing.

He’s trying to show his disciples and anyone else who will listen that there is room for everyone in God’s Beloved Community and he wants them to understand that this is especially true for women and children who were at the very bottom of the social scale in this cultural context. One focal problem is that his own disciples have set themselves up as sort of gatekeepers for the Beloved Community. They are trying to exercise their power to decide who gets in and who doesn’t.

You know how that works, right? You’ve been an outsider, a cast off, a victim of oppression, forced to the bottom of the pile. Then you get a little recognition, a leg up, some enhanced social standing. You’re part of Jesus’ inner circle and suddenly you think you’re in charge of the whole operation. Your little bit of affirmation goes to your head and suddenly you are a very important person. Jesus’ message about being the servant of all is not very appealing. You’re really hoping to sit on his right or left hand when he comes to glory.

But the point is that you haven’t been lifted up, rescued from the pit, affirmed in your brokenness, so that you can put others down. You have been blessed precisely so that you can be a blessing for others. Make room for the kids. They belong as much as you do and you need to make space for them.

It’s difficult to read this passage without thinking about Pope Francis. It may be that he is a sort of Christ figure, even in his very human fallibility. Over and over he tells people not to elevate him to the special status that’s supposed to go with his office. Instead he pleads, “Pray for me.” He must know something about the traps and tragedies of holding a little power on this earth. Making room for the kids is hardly a priority among those around him who have been elevated to positions of authority in the church. Yet there he is, frustrating his security detail and his handlers, delighting the people by leaving his entourage to kiss a boy suffering from cerebral palsy or lift up a little girl dressed in a pope outfit. Isn’t there some delicious irony in that scene? He skips lunch with the power elite of Washington to dine with the poor and he washes the feet of real impoverished prisoners. Unlike those first disciples he seems to have grasped Jesus’ vision of the Beloved Community and he means to live it out as best he can.

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Unless you learn to make room for the kids, you’ll never find space for yourself. What is it about kids? They can be rascally, unkind, sometimes really mean. Kids are no more perfect than the adults around them. But at their best they possess a quality of innocence and a sense of wonder that time and circumstance has beaten out of so many of us older folk. If we try really hard we may be able to recall the wonder of Disneyland or Christmas or Yosemite or a bicycle or a doll when first encountered. There is something magical in moments like that. Make room for the kids for they help us remember the moments of magic, the ways of wonder, the innocence of feeling love unconditional.

A couple of weeks ago there was a great story in the news about the discovery of a new human subspecies. If you recall, the bones were found in a cave in Africa somewhere. The problem was that access to the cave was narrow and the cave itself very small. From the news footage I saw I’m pretty sure I would not have fit. So in order to do the work of excavating the site the lead scientists put out an appeal for smaller people with backgrounds in spelunking and science to do the work. In the end, there were six small female graduate students who were chosen. They were able to slither through the narrow opening into the small cave to retrieve this wonderful body of evidence.

Is there some sort of object lesson here? You’ve got to be small to get in? It takes a woman to get it done? Sometimes it’s the least likely who lead the way. You’ve got to make room for the kids in order to experience the wonder of discovery. If you let your sense of self-importance become over-inflated, you will never fit through the entrance or stand in the presence. In today’s Words of Preparation, Maggie Ross testifies, “I know the only way to cope with growing up is to become a little child, to choose to evolve with all our complexity toward simplicity; to accept and trust as a little child trusts, only now with the second innocence born of sin and pride transfigured that is more precious than the first, that enables us to walk into dark corridors knowing we will be clobbered, but walking in anyway; to love whole-heartedly with wonder and astonishment and delight; to not be afraid of a child’s self-forgetful absorption in life, approached uncritically and with suspended judgment, so that we may learn true critical discernment” (Maggie Ross, The Fire of Your Life: A Solitude Shared).

To evolve toward simplicity, to accept and trust as a child; to love whole-heartedly with wonder and astonishment and delight – all will help us walk down dark corridors, crawl through the tiniest of spaces, and slip through the thin places into the heart of God’s Beloved Community. We need to make room for the kids who will show us the way, Make room for your own kid, held deep inside your being who, will lead you along the path to that place where we find ourselves delightfully lost in wonder, joy and praise, where Christ takes us up in his arms, lays his hands on us and blesses us. Amen.

On Becoming Human (September 14, 2014)

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-25; Psalm 8; Mark 3:1-6

Where did you come from? Who do you look like? These are two common questions that point toward what it means to be human. Why do I say this? Because these are questions about connection. In this second creation story from Genesis, the key focus is relationship. First there is the very intimate creation of “man” through the very breath of God. Then there is God’s recognition that, wonderful as the relationship between God and man might be, it was not enough.

“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Dennis Olson points out that “A ‘helper’ in the Old Testament is not a subordinate but one who may be an equal or sometimes even a superior to the one who is being helped. In fact, God is often called a ‘helper’ to humans in need (Psalm 10:14; 54:4) (Dennis Olson, “Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24, October 4, 2009,”workingpreacher.org). Adam is delighted with the result of God’s creative endeavor – this one who is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. The connection is blessed. It is a sacred bond, linking what God has made to be linked.

What are our roots? To whom do we belong? The answers to these questions are fundamental indicators of our humanity. Dennis Olson again argues that “God’s discovery [that ‘It’s not good that the man should be alone’] highlights what is fundamental to human nature and human flourishing: humans are social creatures who thrive in close and intimate relationships with others.” He continues, “Genesis 2 reminds us of God’s original intention and desire for humans – to find in at least one other person a bond of love that runs so deeply and so intimately that we never feel alone” (Olson, op. cit.). So in a strong sense you might argue that, at least as far as being human is concerned, in the beginning was the relationship, the connection, the helpmate.

As we have shared, stories about where we come from and who we look like are stories about our people, our families, our communities, our base connections. As a middle class white boy, I used to grieve the thought that I had no ethnic identity. Of course, that is part of the curse of being a privileged member of the dominant culture. As friends from other cultures shared rich tales of their ethnic origins, food, customs, people, I felt left out. Sometime later in life I came to realize that there is ethnic identity for white folk and that I had cultural roots in the American South. In particular, some of those roots are Cajun. There was delight in claiming that ethnicity for myself. No wonder I am drawn to southern culture, especially the stories, and the rich, spicy cuisine of New Orleans.

I know these discoveries do not tell my whole story, nor do they make me any better or worse than anyone else. They have given me a degree of joy and comfort in believing that I might fit in, might belong somewhere. But I am sure we are also aware of the pitfalls of ethnic and culture identity. There is so much to be celebrated on the one hand, but on the other hand these markers have been used to exclude, devalue, demonize, hate and engage in violence and war. The risk is that I will elevate me and denigrate you. If you’re not like me, if you don’t come from where I come from, don’t look like my kind, then I might judge you as an outsider, less, one who doesn’t belong. The trap is that I might de-humanize you.

Our focus this week is “Alive in the Story of Creation: Being Human.” In Bible study on Tuesday, Thelma suggested that the sermon title might be, “Becoming Human.” I decided to take her up on that suggestion. There is a sense in which we are born human but sometimes we lose our way and have to find the means to become human again or reclaim our God-given humanity.

We talk about human being and sometimes we even call ourselves human beings. What does it mean to be human? Wikipedia says “Modern humans (Homo sapiens or Homo sapiens sapiens) are the only extant members of the hominin clade, a branch of great apes characterized by erect posture and bipedal locomotion; manual dexterity and increased tool use; and a general trend toward larger, more complex brains and societies.” Other dictionaries just say “people” or “us.”

Genesis says we are dust, “…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” As Dennis Olson puts it, “God gets ‘down and dirty’ with creation, forming the human (adam) from the land or clay (adamah). God performs CPR on the newly formed lump of clay, breathing into the dirt-creature’s nostrils ‘the breath of life’” (Olson, op. cit.). Or more elegantly, remember last week we read in James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation,” that in his loneliness, God thought that he would “make me a man” and so

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;

Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.

I imagine most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as dirt or as apes, for that matter. In fact, that seems to be the distinguishing factor, doesn’t it, the human dilemma – we think. It may be what makes us different from the rest of creation and, indeed, what links us most closely to God. “I think therefore I am”? Maybe we won’t explore that philosophical tradition this morning. But thinking and choosing are apparently what link us to the image and likeness of God.

Ah, the choosing. As we will see, it is the capacity that gets us into trouble. It is our freedom and our downfall. We are given the tree of life to partake of freely but we are told the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is taboo. Well isn’t part of being human the desire to challenge every taboo? We risk the goodness of life that has been given us to be able to see as God sees, to know what God knows. The trouble is we can neither contain nor control what God sees and knows. Everything gets out of hand when we try to play God.

Brian McLaren writes that “The Tree of Life is a beautiful image—suggesting health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness…But, “then he says, “consider this possibility: the second tree could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil. Do you see the danger? God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative. But our judging is frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory, and devaluing. So when we judge, we inevitably misjudge” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, p. 9). Judging is God’s job, not something that humans are made for or are good at.

There is this sense that we have been given all we need to be human, to carry the image and likeness of God who gave us the breath of life and delights in our being. The Psalmist says God has made us a little lower than the angels or than God’s own being, just slightly less than divine, but as wonderful as Hamlet recounts, even in his depressed state. Would that we might be satisfied with what we have been given and embrace our human being. But we want more.

The irony is that in reaching for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we actually sacrifice our humanity. God’s judging is “wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative” but ours is much too often “ignorant, biased, retaliatory, and devaluing.” Do you hear that distinction between God and human frailty? Does that sound like you and me, like the trouble in which we too frequently find ourselves? I suppose we could call this “just being human” but it isn’t the sort of human God made us and meant us to be.

The work of becoming human is to challenge, perhaps over and over again, those places and times in our living when we have abandoned our humanity, that is, our capacity for love and compassion, our ability to care for one another and all creation, our fundamental need for relationship and desire to walk with God – abandoned our humanity in the service of self-centered attempts to be more than we were made to be. We want to be superhuman and we inevitably fail. Becoming human means learning to live as the beings God made us to be, alive to the spirit of God that dwells within us, nothing more and nothing less.

Where did you come from? You came from God and, in time, that’s where you will return. Who do you look like? You’re made in the image and likeness of the living God. If we could whole-heartedly claim this heritage, if we could identify fully with our common life in the one family of God, if we could stuff ourselves with the fruit of the tree of life, what a different world this would be. In the cause of becoming human in the richest, fullest sense, shall we give it a try? Amen.