Plotting the Jesus Way (July 26, 2015)

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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Text: Ephesians 5:15-6:9; Philemon 1:3-21; Hebrews 13:1-8; James 5:1-6

As we have worked to make our road by walking it with Brian McLaren this past year, we have been given a set of three or four scripture passages to consider each week to direct us on our journey. This week we have four particularly challenging passages, especially for our contemporary context. I chose the one from Philemon for this morning’s ancient word but any of the four could have been used to explore what McLaren calls “the Spirit Conspiracy.”

The dictionary defines conspiracy as “an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; a plot.” It also indicates that it is a combination of persons for a secret, unlawful, or evil purpose.” This is hardly language we want to apply to the work of the Spirit or claim for our Christian enterprise. The last definition offered seems more in line with McLaren’s word play: a conspiracy is “any concurrence in action; combination in bringing about a given result.” So the Spirit Conspiracy is more a “concurrence in action,” a coming together in service of a common goal that will lead to a radical change in a situation. It’s plotting to upset of the status quo. It’s working in community toward a transformation of life.

In commenting on these passages, McLaren actually plays with the language of Mission Impossible – “Your mission, if you choose to accept it…” Conspiring with the Spirit in bringing about the Beloved Community of God is exhilarating but challenging work that we must choose and commit ourselves to. Sometimes it operates underground, works behind the scenes, is downright surreptitious in its progress toward bringing newness to life.

In each of the four passages from New Testament Epistles there is at least a hint of subversion to the status quo following the Jesus Way. The first passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:15-6:9). This is the passage in which Paul urges wives to “be subject” to their husbands,” husbands to “love” their wives, “children to obey” their parents. These are some of the words Southern Baptists and others use to “keep women in their place,” specifically, outside leadership in the church. But when Paul urges that the husbands love their wives and children and that familial relationships be characterized by honor and respect, he is subtly challenging patriarchy in which the male head of household had the right to treat wife and children as property with which he could do as he pleased. Is there conspiracy with the Spirit here to undermine the status quo in service of family life rooted and grounded in love? Love brings power to disrupt might, control, domination in establishing and sustaining human relationships.

Paul’s little letter to his friend, Philemon, is highly controversial. Paul has been faulted for not challenging the institution of slavery head on. That may be a fair critique. In this very personal communication, Paul sends the slave Onesimus back to serve his master. We know that this is one biblical passage that has been used to support institutional slavery. At the same time, apologists note that though Paul sends Onesimus home, he also urges Philemon to receive him as Paul’s adopted son and a brother in Christ. Instead of invoking legality, Paul appeals to Philemon on “the basis of love.” Again, we see the subversive power of love lifted up with Paul’s hope that it will transform the relationship of these two children of God and brothers in Christ.

In the passage from Hebrews (13:1-8), the writer addresses issues of undocumented aliens, prisoners, torture, marriage rights and the love of money. Here the writer more directly challenges the status quo. Fear of the foreigner, incarceration of poor debtors, torture of those arrested (as Jesus himself experienced,) marital infidelity and ruthless accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor were social ills in the first century as much as they are today. Some things seem never to change.

Make room for strangers, care about and for those in prison, those who are victims of every kind of torture, learn to live in faithful relationship and honor all those who have committed themselves to one another, free yourselves from the love of money and be content with all with which you have been blessed. And, once more, it’s all undergirded by that transformative power of love. The writer begins his exhortation with these conspiratorial words, “Let mutual love continue.” Life in the Beloved Community depends on this mutual love.

Then James, perhaps the most outspoken of all, pulls no punches in his challenge to business practices that cheat the worker for the greed of the owner and to an economy in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you” (James 5:1-6). Not a text many preachers would choose to preach on most Sundays, and yet here again we hear the word that undermines the status quo in the service of justice and equity, in service of building up the Beloved Community of God.

When it comes to the Spirit conspiracy, to plotting the Jesus Way, there are three key elements to consider. I am indebted to our friend and webmaster, Andy Kille, for sharing these in our ministers’ support group last week. He says there are three concerns that the world’s great religions hold in common – compassion, hospitality and service. My response was to say that most surely these are foundational to Christianity, necessary to plotting the Jesus Way – compassion, hospitality and service. In each of these difficult passages we see one or more of these elements at work, transforming the situation into something closer to Jesus’ vision of God’s beloved community.

Compassion, the capacity to feel with another, to walk in another’s shoes, to get inside another’s skin. If we take the time and make the space for compassion, it will be hard to hate, difficult to judge, challenging to mistreat. Compassion carries forward empathy, that capacity to care for another and to work for their well-being, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Compassion is crucial to Paul’s advice about how husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and partners, ought to treat one another – with love and respect, tenderness and care for the well-being of all.

Hospitality is essential to the Jesus Way. All are welcome in this place. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the author of Hebrews says, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Make room at the table, open your door, cheer the weary traveler, who knows what wonders God has in store for the hospitable. Ask Mary Granholm and others in our congregation how their lives have been blessed by the practice of hospitality. As the old spirituals sing “There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom, just choose your seat and sit down” and “We’re gonna eat the welcome table one of these days.” Hospitality asks, why not now? And it’s not just the strangers. It’s prisoners, those who have been beaten down and tortured, those who have been left out and left behind, those who have been lied to and cheated, terrorized and abused, poor and struggling, the least and the last and the lost.

Service is the Jesus Way. It’s not enough to feel compassionate and hospitable. Something has to be done, making room, making a way, making life better for all creation. This is crucial work in the Jesus Way. To love God with your whole being, to love your neighbor as yourself, to let mutual love continue means there is work to be done. Earlier in his letter, James writes “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

Husbands and wives, partners and lovers, children and parents, families of every size and shape, friends and neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, strangers and enemies, rich and poor the Jesus Way insists that we all come together in one big tent, that we learn to live together and share with one another and care for one another wherever we find ourselves in whatever circumstances on this small, fragile planet. Indeed we need to extend compassion, hospitality and service to the whole of creation.

“The Spirit that moves among us,” writes Brian McLaren, “is the same Spirit that moves in and through all creation. If we are attuned to the Spirit, we will see all creatures as our companions…even as our relatives in the family of God, for in the Spirit we are all related” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 238). This is the wisdom of the Spirit Conspiracy. This is how we come to walk the Jesus Way – “to see all creatures as companions…as…relatives in the family of God.” So the plot thickens as we conspire with Spirit, as we make the dangerous, thrilling decision to walk the Jesus Way, as we devote ourselves to working for the Beloved Community. In today’s Word of Preparation, McLaren offers the challenge, “There are circles of people that the Spirit of God wants to touch and bless, and you are the person through whom the Spirit wants to work. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing to others” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 235).

Coming up

Sunday we will welcome to our pulpit, Liliana Da Valle, Interim Pastor at Shellridge Community Church and former Executive Minister of the Rhode Island region. Her text is Hebrews 4:14-16 and her title is “With Bold Determination.” So, we will be away from our journey with Brian McLaren this week, but you can read above about the theme and scripture from his book with an attached commentary. This concludes our consideration of the Sermon on the Mount. The coming weeks will focus on Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter. Both Palm Sunday and Easter will entail worship for the whole family and communion for April will be on Maundy Thursday, April 2 in the context of a meal.

We continue our study in Adult Spiritual Formation of nonviolent resistance and what our faith tradition asks of us in this area. One important resource on which we are drawing is The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink. Join us on Sunday for serious reflection and spirited discussion.

Come at 10:00 AM and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation. Bring others along to share the day.

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

We’ve Come This Far By Faith (September 8, 2013)

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 8, 2013

Text:  Hebrews 11:1-3, 39-12:2

Today we celebrate the official birthday of the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto.  In truth, that official date, June 18, 1893, is a little suspect.  Records indicate that the first gathering of Baptists in this area was in the village of Mayfield, which pre-dates the city of Palo Alto.  A group of 7 or 8 began a church in Mayfield, which was centered around what is now the intersection of California and El Camino, in the spring of 1891.  Ironically our church had its earliest roots in the very neighborhood in which we are now located, before it was part of Palo Alto.

At that time there were no churches in Mayfield but there were 13 saloons.  This intrepid group of Baptists bought one of those saloons, which was sitting vacant and refurbished it as a church, complete with new paint, carpet, an organ and a lovely coal-fired chandelier.  However, with the growth of Stanford University, several of the original group left Mayfield and the church for the new town of Palo Alto, where they worked on the construction of the new university.  The church sold its carpet and organ and closed its doors.

The first religious services in Palo Alto were held in September of 1892, outdoors, in a grove of live oaks at the corner of University and Emerson.  The minister was a Baptist who came up from Mountain View to conduct services.  At that time, Baptists in Palo Alto did not receive denominational support for founding a church that others did, but they were enthusiastically part of ecumenically shared ministry.  They met either outdoors or in a town hall which had an organ.  They were instrumental in founding the first Sunday School in town, which met in a downtown real estate office.

The First Baptist Church of Palo Alto was finally founded in June of 1893, in the chapel car, Emmanuel, which stopped regularly in the new town, as the Southern Pacific Railroad made runs from San Francisco to Aromas in northern Monterey County.  That first church had 9 members and was officially known as Emmanuel Baptist Church.  Unfortunately, they were only able to sustain their church life for about a year and a half before abandoning the project.  However, they continued to meet in the homes of members for prayer and study.  In 1897, with denominational support the church was re-started as the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto and has continued to this day.

We’ll share some more of the history of the congregation when we move to the Fellowship Hall after lunch.  Marilyn Hunwick, with some help from Lynn and myself, assembled a display of materials from our archives, which we hope you will find as interesting as we do.  What I would like for us to celebrate in this service of worship is the dedicated, persistent efforts of this small group of faithful Baptists to formalize their witness in an important, growing community in the Bay Area.  When the church built its first building in 1900, there were about 1000 people living in Palo Alto and Stanford was barely fifteen years old.   These people had a vision of what might happen in this area and they committed themselves to being a part of an exciting, new town that held great promise for the future.  These folk had faith that God was doing something in their midst and they chose to live that faith as a congregation.  120 years later FBCPA is their legacy and we are their heirs.

But we are not just their heirs in terms of property and resources, rich as those are.  We are also their heirs in faith.  The writer of Hebrews encourages us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”  I often feel, when I enter a sanctuary like ours, the presence of that cloud of witnesses.  Maybe it’s memory, but maybe it’s something more.  Maybe those faithful folk who went before us still visit on occasion or linger long to guide.  Maybe I’m too taken with Dickens and the kind of spirits that come to old Ebeneezer Scrooge, leading him from his miserable greed into the joyful light of a new day.  Anyway, however you might think of or experience that cloud of witnesses, there are surely people who have helped to shape your life in the faith, who still draw you into a practice of faithfulness.

Who is in your cloud of witnesses?  I know some of you have been a part of this congregation for 50 or 60 years, half the life of the congregation.  Some of you were born here, like our moderator, Carolyn, who was entered on the cradle roll at 4 days old; or Thelma Tuttle, whose father helped to build our Fellowship Hall.  For some of us our candidates for the cloud of witness are still with us.  Others of us have faith heroes from other times and places.  In this month’s Spire I wrote about some of mine from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Let’s take a minute.  Each of you has a slip of paper on which to write a name or two.  After you have written the names of your faith heroes, your cloud witnesses, we’ll collect them, share a few and offer a brief prayer of Thanksgiving.

We’ve come this far by faith.  Again, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Commentators Edgar McKnight and Christopher Church write, “Biblical faith is both gift and action.”  It is something we hold and something we do.  It is grace that shapes and informs the way we actually live our lives.  The commentators continue, “…by faith the heroes and heroines of the past translated the promised hope into reality by which they lived their lives.  It was something substantial” (Edgar V. McKNight and Christopher Church, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Hebrews-James, pp. 259, 261).

In this congregation, a living faith is something we inherit, from the cloud of witnesses and from the life and ministry of Jesus, the Christ, “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  The challenge for us as we celebrate our past is, at the same time, to allow our faith to shape our present practice of ministry and draw us into God’s new thing, the promise of a future that will move us ever closer to the reign of God in our lives and in our world.  We’ve come this far by faith.  This is true.  As we honor the faithful who have led us this far, we offer our undying gratitude.  But we also remember that theirs is a living legacy.  Everything with which they have blessed us is so that we might “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We’ve come this far by faith and we keep on keeping on by the same faith and we look to God’s future wrapped in the very same faith, holding fast to the promise of all that is yet to be.  Amen.

Rally Day this Sunday- 120th Anniversary

a new thingThis week marks the church’s “back to school” days.  Sunday will be our annual Rally Day when we transition from the more relaxed days of summer to the energetic bustle of autumn.  Apparently the weather does not plan to cooperate as it promises to be warm this weekend and summer is likely to linger for a few more weeks.  Still, we will be gearing up for a full church year of educational opportunity for children, youth and adults.

We are particularly blessed to have two fine interns coming to work with us this “school year” and they will both begin this Sunday.  Be sure to give a warm FBCPA welcome to Naomi Shultz (from Pacific School of Religion) and Doug Davidson (from the American Baptist Seminary of the West.)  Pastor Tripp and I are both excited to be working with these students and trust that you will, too.

Sunday’s focus will be on Hebrews 11 and the theme “We’ve Come this Far by Faith,” as we celebrate the “great cloud of witnesses” whose legacy is FBCPA.  We will celebrate our 120th anniversary in worship and at a potluck cook out afterwards.  We’ve been digging in the archives and have found some pretty interesting historical material to share with you.  Thanks especially to Marilyn Hunwick, our chief sleuth.   We will also consider what it means for us to take faith and hope from our forebears in order to “run the race that is set before US.”

Come at 10 AM for worship and stay for the potluck cook out afterwards.  Bring someone along to share the day with you.  See you then.

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

Pastor Rick

Entertaining Angels (September 1, 2013)

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 1, 2013 

Text:  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Today’s title and text were those used for this summer’s Peace Camp.  The full title was, “Entertaining Angels:  Peacemaking through Radical Hospitality.”  Plenary speakers, Bible study, workshops and incidental conversation all addressed this theme.  How can the practice of radical hospitality lead to a more peaceful world?  Indeed, how can it not?  The program booklet for the week was headed by these words from Radical Welcome:  Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation by Stephanie Spellers:  “In practicing radical welcome, we ask God, ‘What would you have us do?  Who would you have us embrace?’  And when God presents us with the holy opportunity to be stretched beyond our comfort – either by welcoming a particular group or by allowing that group’s culture and perspective to transform us – then we leap forward in faith…”

How does this challenge sound to you?  When you hear the word hospitality these days, what do you think?  Maybe hosting a family gathering or open house or a holiday party for folks you know and love?  Or perhaps, if we turn to the hospitality industry, we think of hotels, bars, restaurants, resorts and retreats, places where travelers find respite and refreshment, pleasure and play.  From our position of privilege we don’t give a lot of thought to hospitality as a necessity, as being a life or death matter as it was in the time when today’s text was written.

The writer of Hebrews encourages us “not [to] neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  Why is this important?  Well one argument the writer makes is that “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  You never know for certain how your guests may affect your life.  You may not even know with absolute assurance who your guests are.  The reference in the text is probably to the experience of Abraham and Sarah who welcome strangers under the oaks of Mamre that turn out to be messengers from God with messages that change their lives forever.

In those days hospitality was often a matter of survival in a wild and hostile environment.  Christine Pohl reminds us that “Before inns, hotels, and restaurants, every stranger needed someone’s hospitality.  Whether or not they had resources, when people were away from home, they were dependent on the kindness and generosity of others, often strangers” (Christine Pohl, “Building a Place for Hospitality,” Christian Reflection, The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2007,    Hospitality was a moral imperative in many ancient cultures.

In addition, Erik Heen tells us that “The Greek word…traditionally translated…’hospitality’ is philoxenia, literally, ‘love of the strange.’”  He continues, “Many ancients were locked into lives of routine and did not stray far from their places of birth. Life was difficult and mobility was limited.”  He then speculates that “One way in which the world became ‘larger’ was to open one’s home (however poor) to those that came from ‘outside’…The unknown seekers of hospitality brought news (and stories!) of the wider world and broke open one’s little provincial world. There was a kind of marvelous exchange, then, of mutual benefit between host and guest. The guest received protection (inns were dangerous places), food, and company. Hosts were led out of themselves and their ‘little’ worlds. Those locked into deadly routine were engaged by that which was ‘outside’ the camp” (Erik Heen, “Commentary Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, 2013,”

The challenge for us, it seems to me, is whether or not we might recapture some of the significance of these ancient perspectives on hospitality.  Might we look beyond our comfort zones to see that are there still people on this planet in desperate need of hospitality?  Are we willing, indeed open, to loving the strange – and the stranger – not only because of their need but also for the ways such love might expand our consciousness and appreciation of the world in which we live?

“Break the Bread of Belonging” was the first hymn I encountered by the great British hymn writer, Brian Wren.  I am still moved by the way it attempts to capture the experience of people who are refugees and immigrants, people who, for whatever reason, have left country, culture, family, friends, home and livelihood in search of freedom and a better way of life.  “Break the bread of belonging.  Welcome the stranger in the land.  We have each been a stranger.  We can try to understand.”  And is this not true?  Have we not, each of us, had some experience of being a stranger, even if it was only the benign moment of being new to a neighborhood, school or church?  We can multiply the affects of those experiences on our own lives to try to understand the experiences of those who have fled the terrors of war, oppression, poverty, natural disaster.  We can see and embrace the need of some, whether they are deemed “legal” or not, to be offered hospitality, to be welcomed because their ability to survive and thrive depends on it.

And then there is the wonder and delight of sharing the stories of those who have come seeking hospitality and found welcome.  Some of those sitting here this morning have provided education, insight and understanding in this area for me.  I won’t go down the list calling you out, but let me tell just one little vignette from last week’s picnic.  I sat across the table from Paul Tuan as he shared some of his story of leaving China as a young man, coming to this country for educational opportunity, eventually finding his legality challenged in an age when the US still had laws on the books limiting Chinese immigrants to 105 a year.  Ask Paul to tell you the rest of the story of how playing the flute in an army band led to citizenship.  His story and those of others of you are fascinating and enriching.  Many of us have traveled broadly, but we have not always taken the opportunity to get to know with any intimacy the people and cultures we have encountered.  Indeed, we still have much to learn from the stories of those who gather here week after week.

What strikes me most deeply about the writer’s exhortations in this chapter of Hebrews is the opening line: “Let mutual love continue.”  Our acts of hospitality, of social reform, of individual and communal fidelity, of generosity, of trust and of worship are born of our ability to live lives of mutual love.  In the end, those we encounter, in whatever circumstance, are our sisters and brothers.  We are all children of God, made in God’s image and likeness, regardless of color, creed, national origin, orientation, identity, status.  We are all sisters and brothers, common kin in the family of God.  How do we, any of us, all of us, receive our kinfolk?  How hospitable can we be to one another?  How can we ground our lives in mutual love?

On this weekend of my mother’s 95th birthday, I think back to those days when her family – parents, 10 sisters and brothers and their children- would gather in my grandparents’ yard before tables groaning with the most delicious food imaginable.  In spite of our differences – politically, socially, theologically, economically – I can still remember the mutual love that drew us and bound us together.

“Francis Taylor Gench reminds us that ‘love, in the New Testament, is not something you feel; it is something you do.”  She says, “Love seeks the well-being of others and is embodied in concrete efforts in their behalf” (Hebrews, Westminster Bible Companion quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Open Table,” SAMUEL, 9-1-2013,  “Entertaining Angels:  Peacemaking through Radical Hospitality” – how might the mutual love we practice in acts of radical hospitality lead to peace on earth?  This is a particularly acute concern as our government considers an attack on another country in the Middle East.  How will military action against Syria, no matter how we justify it, lead to peace, hospitality or mutual love.  The expense of a military strike alone would be better allocated toward acts of peace, hospitality and love.

What if we were to order our actions as if everyone we met was a messenger from God?  If not a messenger per se, surely a child of God?  How would we live differently, how would our actions and attitudes be transformed?  Would we experience a leap forward in faith?  Would the reign of God come just a little closer?  What if we were to ask God, in all seriousness, “What would you have us do?  Who would you have us embrace?”   Just for this week, let’s not neglect to show radical hospitality to strangers.  Let’s see if by doing so we find that we are entertaining angels.  Above all, let us continue in mutual love.  Amen.

Fire Next Time (August 11, 2013)

sermons.fwFIRE NEXT TIME

A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, August 18, 2013

Text:  Luke 12:49-46; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign.  Said, ‘No more water, but fire next time’…”  The playlist that runs through my mind opened immediately to these words from the old spiritual as soon as I read the opening verse of today’s text, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

The text and the song conjure apocalyptic images of final judgment with evil punished, fire and brimstone, death and destruction.  It’s not at all a pretty picture nor one I would ordinarily turn to, let alone preach.  But we know that there is a thread of apocalyptic judgment that runs through the Bible. This is another of those Sundays when the lectionary gives us a text we might happily skip over.  But, as with last Sunday’s text from the same chapter of Luke’s gospel, it may be good discipline to stick with the passage to see if it has anything to say to us.

Many of us have difficulty believing in a literal hell, a burning pit presided over by a literal devil.  It’s old imagery that we have outgrown, moved beyond, left behind, if, indeed, it was ever part of our belief system.  We have given ourselves over to a God of unconditional love, infinite compassion and boundless grace.  We find comfort and a measure of security in a God who, in Christ, is in the process of reconciling all of creation to God’s self.  We embrace a God who will not hold our sins eternally against us.  But then we come up against a passage like today’s. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!,” Jesus declaims.  How did his first followers hear this?  What are we to do with it?

Well, one way too frame it is to accept that there will be a “Day of the Lord,” a day of judgment.  Matthew writes in his gospel of that day when “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42).  Or we may be more familiar with the parable in which the sheep will be separated from the goats with the latter being sent “into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), which Matthew describes earlier as “the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).  It’s not a pretty picture, not one we want to spend much time contemplating.

Though the imagery may be dated, from a vastly different time and place, it may still serve as some sort of stark reminder that there are consequences for the choices we make, for the way we shape our lives and for the commitments we make and break.  Unconditional love does not liberate us from responsibility; infinite compassion compels us to do likewise; boundless grace calls forth our own graciousness.  It is not enough to take and take without ever giving back some of the blessing with which we have been blessed.  Truth be told, most of us are neither sheep nor goats but some sort of crazy hybrid that sometimes gets it right and other times fails miserably.

I’m not at all convinced that Jesus was really in favor of a place of eternal punishment.  I think that what we have here is a man on a mission to which he is deeply and passionately committed.  Have you ever felt a sense of urgency about something, ever felt stressed over getting something accomplished or doing it right, ever been intensely eager for the conclusion of a journey or the fulfillment of a promise?  I think this is where Jesus was on this day as he made his way to Jerusalem and what would surely be a day of reckoning for him.  He was just a little impatient and frustrated with the failure of his followers to grasp fully the significance of the journey they were on and what he had been trying to teach them along the way.

The fire he longed for was not a destructive one, for he loved this crazy hybrid flock that followed him.  He wanted only the best for them.  He wanted them to find with and through him the abundant fulfillment of the reign of God.  He knew it was wonderful beyond their imagining and he wanted them to see it to.  The fire he longed for was the purifying fire that would burn the chaff and leave the wheat.  It makes me think of the text for the great aria and chorus from Messiah, drawn from the prophet Malachi, “But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth, for he is like a refiner’s fire. And he shall purify the sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” Or to draw from my playlist the words of that grand old hymn we sometimes sing, “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.  The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

Jesus is showing a very human desire to get on with the work at hand, the coming of God’s reign on earth.  He is eager that his followers lose the dimness of their lenses and see clearly with his heightened vision what God has in store for them all.  He knows he will not be with them much longer and it is urgent that they be ready to pick up his work once he is no longer with them in person.

Of course, they also needed to know that there were hard days ahead, that the road would not be easy, that they would suffer hardship and persecution before all reached God’s intended was fulfillment.  To take the road of righteousness would have consequences, some dire, for those first followers.  Persecution and even martyrdom would come to some of them.  The writer of Hebrews has a graphic list of what the faithful faced over the centuries.  There was a cost to discipleship that went along with the promised joy of its fulfillment.

The peace that Jesus offers, the peace that passes understanding, is not simply the absence of violence, it is a deep peace grounded in justice and nurtured by righteousness.  It is a peace that is only fully realized when the reign of God becomes the way of the world and the world is finely turned right side up.  Before that there may indeed be turbulent times with division among friends and within families.  It’s not that Jesus wants to undermine peace and bring division.  These are the inevitable result of the shift from the way of the world to the way of God.  They are incompatible and will always be in tension.  David Lose writes, “…those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming [realm of God] for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family”

It seems to me that this perspective might have some meaning for us.  Clearly we don’t find ourselves living in a place and time where we are persecuted for our faith.  After all this is a “Christian country,” is it not?  At least, that’s what some argue.  But what if we stood truly and deeply for the realization of the reign of God in the here and now?  Are there things about our own “present order” that would come into conflict with our faith if we practiced it as Jesus envisioned it?

David Lose, again, raises this question about our way of life and faith practice, “Is the relative ease of the Christian life in this land entirely the result of cultural acceptance or is it because we fail to live into the gospel Jesus announced?”  He continues, “Throughout Luke’s account, Jesus announces a new community – he calls it the [realm] of God – that is governed not by power but by equity, where all those in need are cared for, where forgiveness is the norm, where the poor are privileged, where wealth is shared rather than hoarded, and where the weak and lonely are honored”

Those seem like elements of the reign of God, of a life in Christ we might still strive to embody – governance through equity, care for the needy, a path toward forgiveness, offering recognition to the poor, sharing wealth and honoring the weak and lonely.  This sounds like a way of living we might still look forward to and work to create.  At the end of chapter twelve, the writer of Hebrews encourages us as people of faith, “Therefore, since we are receiving a [realm] that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Maybe the old spiritual is not so far off.  No more destructive punishment as in the account of the flood.  It will be the fire next time, but not a destroying fire, rather we may experience a refining fire that will consume the detritus of our lives and refine our gold.  Like those pioneers of our faith, that great cloud of witnesses, we will be free to run the race, laying “aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” unencumbered by the false hopes and inadequate promises of the present order.