Dressed for Success

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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Text: Isaiah 10:33-11:9 (The Message); Luke 19:41-44; Ephesians 6:10-18

“Clothes make the man.” So observed the pundit, Mark Twain. We dress for success to quote a cliché. But, what does that mean for people of faith gathered on a Sunday morning in May in the middle of “Peace Month”? How does what we wear relate to the things that make for peace?

It has not escaped my attention that I am virtually the only one here who wears a jacket and tie to church any more. This is not a judgment on anyone, just an observation. Fashion changes over time and the truth is that I am something of an anachronism. They still sell suits and ties and dress shirts at Macy’s so I imagine there are places where they are worn. Sometimes it must still be important to dress for success. There are places and situations where what you wear matters.

I know I am my mother’s child when it comes to dressing, especially for church. By the end of her life she had closets full of beautiful clothes, most of which were reserved for special occasions. And, when I was growing up there was no more special occasion than Sunday morning. We had our “Sunday best” and those clothes were saved for that day. Washed, ironed, and polished, we would head out the door spotless and spiffy. In her worldview, you saved your best for the Lord, including what you wore to the Lord’s House. I think she had a point. How we adorn ourselves does affect our attitude, how we feel, and how we carry ourselves.

Writer Gay Talese has opined, “Putting on a beautifully designed suit elevates my spirit, extols my sense of self, and helps define me as a man to whom details matter.” That 19th century dispenser of witty wisdom, Oscar Wilde, once quipped that “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.” But even the great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, believed that “Being perfectly well-dressed gives one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” Actually, the entire Mark Twain quotation is: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I suppose the naked folk who sometimes lounge at the intersection of Market and Castro Streets in San Francisco can capture your attention, but they have little long term affect on social structure.

Well, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “dress for success”? Is there a connection between fashion and faith? I started to think about this Tuesday in Bible study when Thelma Parodi pointed out that The Message paraphrase of Isaiah 11:5 reads, “Each morning God will pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” Thelma thought, and I agree, that this is a charming, captivating image.  For that same verse, the New Revised Standard Version reads, “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” The reference is not directly to God but to the “shoot” that grows from “Jesse’s stump,” the one whom later tradition identified as the Messiah, and whom we have associated with Jesus.

It is this One from God (or who is God in human form) who comes to redeem creation, to guide us up the Holy Mountain, to lead us to our home in God’s Beloved Community. What does he wear? How does he dress for success? He straps on righteousness and buckles up faithfulness. He comes ready to work on the things that make for peace. Isaiah proclaims, “The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over the Promised One, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding. The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God.” Here is one dressed and ready for what must be done for peace to prevail.

Now this passage links nicely, at least in mind, to what Paul has to say to the church in Ephesus about being dressed and ready for the work they have to do. Except, of course, this passage from Paul is full of military imagery – hardly what you’d turn to to talk about the things that make for peace. Armor is not usually the peacemaker’s outfit of choice. I know we sometimes use the language of peace euphemistically to describe various weapons, soldiers, and military operations, but use of language doesn’t always make it so.

I’m sure the armor imagery spoke to that early Ephesian church in a place and time in which soldiers in military attire were a common sight. They would have had a clear picture of the Roman soldier in his wide leather belt, emblazoned breast plate, sturdy sandals or boots, protective helmet, carrying his sword or spear and shield. I imagine it was a more intimidating presence than the one we carry from contemporary costume dramas. These guys were not actors, they meant business.

Ironically, they were dressed to bring about peace – the great Roman Peace or Pax Romana. This was, indeed, a sort of peace – enforced peace that involved the suppression of freedom, threats or the practice of violence when needed, control and oppression of whole populations, the well-being of the few at the expense of the many. This was not the vision of God’s Holy Mountain or Beloved Community. This was not the goal of the Promised One, the Prince of Peace, to whom the Ephesian Christians pledged allegiance. While they endured the Roman Peace, Paul urged them to prepare for the peace that passes understanding. Turning the military imagery on its head, he speaks of “the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…shoes for…whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace…the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one…the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

I suppose the Ephesians might have been shocked or amused at Paul’s use of this image of their oppressors to make his point about being faithful to Christ, and to God’s high calling. But then, again, maybe it was empowering, the way “Putting on a beautifully designed suit [might]elevate the spirit, extol [one’s]sense of self, and help define [one] as a [person]to whom details matter” or “Being perfectly well-dressed [could] give one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” It is a kind of dressing for success – for the success of shalom and Beloved Community. Following the practice of the Promised One, put on your “sturdy work clothes and boots” and get busy.

Maybe there are times when it is still appropriate to put on your Sunday best and to go up to God’s house to sing and pray in praise and celebration. I hope so. People still dress up to go out occasionally and wear party outfits, don’t they? We still like to watch the glamor and glitz on the various red carpets and the fashion shows on reality television. “A well-tied tie” may not be “the first serious step in life,” but there may be satisfaction in that, or however you choose to adorn yourself to feel good and beautiful and express joy in living. That is indeed a form of success, worthy of investment. Put on your red dress or sweater and celebrate the Spirit of life as we did last Sunday. Get out your tux and your formal, your high heeled sneakers, your brightest lipstick, your pink feather boa, your gaudiest bow tie, your dress up sweatshirt, and kick up your heels now and then.

But don’t forget the things that make for peace. Don’t leave Jesus sitting on the side of the hill weeping over us because we didn’t know or see or embrace the things that make for peace. Otherwise we run the risk of sowing the seeds of our own destruction – the emptiness of our good times, the felling of our great “trees” of state, the toppling of our temples, the crumbling of our cities, and the devastation of creation.

When we dress for success, we must be certain to put on clothes appropriate to the work at hand. We don’t need the image of armor to see that, if we want the things that make for peace, our sturdy work clothes and boots are righteousness or right-living, faithfulness to the living presence of God, the truth that sets us free, the salvation or sense of wholeness which the gospel promises, and the Spirit who provides wisdom and understanding, direction and strength, knowledge and fear or awe of God.

Dressed like that what other work could we do but feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners – the very things that make for peace? I guarantee you Jesus won’t be sitting on the hillside weeping. He’ll be right there working with us in his own sturdy work clothes and boots, dressed for success, the success of establishing God’s Holy Mountain, God’s Beloved Community, right here and right now. What outfits do you have hanging in your closets, ready to wear?

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Fulfilled. Today.

Martin Luther King, Jr.One joy of my expanded role during January while Pastor Rick is away is having the opportunity to share in our congregation’s Tuesday morning Bible study. Yesterday, I spent an hour and a half at Marylea McLean’s home with eight members of our church, discussing this week’s three Scripture passages. As most of you know, we have been following the year-long alternative lectionary presented in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking in planning our worship as well as our weekly Bible studies this year.

Among the passages we examined today was the section from Luke 4 where Jesus enters the temple, picks up the scroll, and inaugurates his public ministry by reading the familiar yet powerful words from the 61st chapter of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). Luke reports that after reading, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down, before asserting, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

Fulfilled. Today.

In our discussion at Bible study, Thelma Parodi picked up on a point Brian McLaren emphasizes in his commentary on this passage. Jesus makes the bold claim that, in him, Isaiah’s promise has been fulfilled. As of that moment, the prophet’s words no longer reflect some hope for the distant future. McLaren notes that if someone declares things will improve someday, that may be “interesting and acceptable,” but it serves to “postpone until the future any need for real change in the hearers’ lives.” On the other hand, “For Jesus to say the promised time was here already, fulfilled, today…that was astonishing. That required deep thinking and radical adjustment.” And apparently, those who heard Jesus say these words found such a call to change more than a bit disconcerting. Although their immediate response seems gracious, it’s not long before they’ve driven him out of town and are seeking to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-30)

As I thought about the immediacy of Jesus’ claim, I found myself thinking about a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in the 1963 March on Washington. In calling for an end to racial injustice, King spoke of the need for action amid the “fierce urgency of now.” King declared:

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

I hear in the words of Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. an immediacy that speaks to our task as disciples today. The “fierce urgency of now” presses upon us to build communities where every life matters, where all people are treated with justice, dignity, and respect. Similarly, Jesus invites us to get swept up in God’s reign today, immediately, in this moment.

God is moving in our world today. Can we perceive it? Are we ready to participate in it? The need is urgent, and the time is now.

Doug Davidson
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families

Mothers’ Songs (December 7, 2014)

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:26-55

We know these mothers’ songs. We’ve heard them many times before. Year after year, Mary’s Magnificat is requisite fare for Advent celebrations everywhere. We often use these texts on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, when the watchword is joy. Surely there is exultation, hope, promise, joy in both these mothers’ songs. But today we hear them on a Sunday when we gather in longing for peace, for shalom, for justice, reconciliation and well-being for all.

How many of your mothers sang? I have many fond memories of my mother singing. Her soprano was a staple of family harmony as we passed the miles on road trips between Kansas, California or Idaho and Louisiana. But, even more than that, she sang around the house. Mostly she sang hymns and songs from the church of her childhood – “In the Sweet By and By,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Just as I Am,” or more recent favorites like “How Great Thou Art.” The songs were familiar, reassuring, beloved. Whatever the intention of their authors, when my mother sang them they were about a deep, heart-filled faith in the goodness of God and value of family. There were also folk songs like “Red River Valley” and “Springtime in the Rockies” and lullabies like “Rock-a-bye Baby” and “Lullaby and Good Night.” Mother’s songs were an important part of my own growing up. How about yours?

I suppose our memories are more sentimental than what Luke had in mind when he gave these songs to the mothers of John and Jesus. He gave them something profound, promising, prophetic to sing. Each, in her way, sings good news critical to Luke’s gospel.

Elizabeth is no longer young. By all rights her child-bearing days are behind. Brian McLaren invites us to, “Imagine a woman in the ancient world who longed all her life to have children. She married young, maybe around the age of fifteen. At sixteen, still no pregnancy. At twenty, still no pregnancy. At twenty-five, imagine how she prayed. At thirty, imagine her anxiety as her prayers were mixed with tears of shame and disappointment – for herself, for her husband. At forty, imagine hope slipping away as she wondered if it even made sense to pray anymore. Imagine her sense of loss and regret at fifty. Why pray now?” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 67).

Then the miraculous pregnancy! Such hope! Such joy! By the time her cousin, Mary, comes to visit, Elizabeth is practically giddy with expectation. Her response, her song, seems downright Pentecostal. The text says she “…was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry…” This is no lullaby; it’s a wake up song. Nor is this one of those familiar songs my mother used to hum around the house. This is a powerful, prophetic word that comes bubbling up from Elizabeth’s womb. This is a holy hymn the origin of which is the heart of God. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  She is singing to her cousin, but she is also singing her own story of patient faithfulness over a lifetime. Blessed are those who believe that God’s promises will be fulfilled for them, in them and through them! This is an Advent song for you and me.

Then, not to be outdone, Mary launches into her own song. Playing off Elizabeth’s song, as in any good opera or musical, she launches into an aria that Richard Vinson calls “Handelian” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 41). In reality, it’s an improbable song for a peasant girl from Galilee. Luke takes this opportunity to lay out one of the major themes of his gospel – the great reversal of fortune between the arrogant rich and the oppressed poor that will come with God’s reign on earth. Vinson writes of Mary’s song, “Like her son, she can ‘begin with Moses and all the prophets’ and rattle off the themes of God’s salvation: mercy to the poor, judgment on the wealthy; honor to the humble, confusion to the proud; faithfulness to the promises made to Israel through Abraham and the patriarchs” (op. cit., p. 44).

Again, this is a holy hymn that comes from deep within God’s intent and desire for God’s people and all creation. From Luke’s pen, this mother’s song is also profoundly prophetic, foretelling the good news that her son will bring from heaven to earth: God is a merciful helper who keeps his promise to hold all life with steadfast love. This, too, is an Advent song for you and me.

But these are not the only songs mothers sing – these songs of exultation, hope, promise, joy. Another singer sings a song of painful memory and wistful longing. In her poem, “I Ask My Mother to Sing,” Li-Young Lee writes with poignant grace,

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and swing like a boat.

I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung:
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry,
But neither stops her song.

Sometimes mothers’ songs are sung through tears – tears of loss and longing, tears of pain and passion, tears of anger and admonition. I hear the mothers’ songs wailed in lament by the mothers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and all the other victims of our mean streets and racial injustice. I hear the sad songs sung from mothers confined to refugee camps or living on the street. I hear the aching arias of mothers whose children have been lost to human trafficking, to shooting and shooting up, to mental illness and suicide. I hear the cries of mothers sending their children alone across the desert in search of a better life.   Last night, Kath Donley, pastor in Albany, New York, commented on a Facebook posting about Argentina’s Mothers of the Lost, women whose children and spouses disappeared during the years of political oppression in the 1970s: “I just learned today that the Magnificat was banned in Argentina after the Mothers of the Disappeared sang it and put it on posters. You probably knew that already. But it’s a revolutionary song of peace for Advent and every season.” I did not know this but it is clear that Mary’s song about liberation and justice rings true for mothers of every time.

Also last night, Sharon Fennema, the new professor of Christian Worship at Pacific School of Religion, posted to Facebook from the protests in Berkeley where she had taken to the streets along with Doug’s wife, Jennifer, worship professor at the American Baptist Seminary of the West. She wrote, “This diverse crew of protestors, there for many different reasons, all held that moment together, as if our lives depended on it. ‘If we remember, they still live,’” was the chant we’d been saying moments before.” This is exactly the sort of song of hope and promise that mothers sing through their tears and rage. Sharon continues, “What would happen, I wondered, if all of us really did remember those who’ve been victims of systemic racism? How might the world change if we all took just a moment to imagine ourselves in that position? Perhaps it was not so powerful for those whose lives are constantly threatened by a system that sees them as disposable, but for those of us with white privilege, with the privilege to think that the police are there to protect us, this kind of radical empathy, I hope, could be life-changing.”

She concludes her reflection with this challenge for all of us: “In this Advent season of longing and waiting, may all the world yearn for and work for the day when Love is made flesh among us. We just want things to change. O come, Emanuel, and ransom your captive people.”

In the end, Elizabeth and Mary will also sing songs of lament and protest. Each of their boys, who begin with such hope and promise, will be executed, victims of arrogant power, obscene wealth and cowardly fear of change. The powers that be will murder both boys who heard and believed their mothers’ songs, who gave themselves over to God’s promise of fulfillment and who trusted in God’s steadfast love. So, does this mean that my message this Advent morning is one without hope, one that sees peace as impossible, that lives with lament and cannot look to a good and justice future?   No, that’s not my purpose. For the witness of mothers who cry out still holds hope that God’s will may be done, that peace is possible and that God’s reign can come on earth. I hear the mothers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner singing through tears and anguish, singing songs of hope for peace and good will, crying out that their sons will not have died in vain, urging us from these lost lives to see and understand that black lives matter and that every person on earth ought to have the opportunity to breathe freely. I hear Elizabeth and Mary carrying forward their deep faith in the God of their ancestors and of their own lives, singing through agonized weeping songs of prophetic trust that the witness of their sons will yet lead to the light that illuminates the darkness and to the love that redeems, resurrects and restores. Mothers’ songs sing the whole story from beginning to end. They cry against injustice and for peace and good will. They weep for pain and suffering, loss and death. And they celebrate the hope and peace, joy and love that rises from the tears and fears of all the years to restore us all. Mothers’ songs declare that, in spite of everything, God comes again and again, seeking her own in love and compassion, making all things new.

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet[s all] foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

 

 

A Father’s Song (November 30, 2014)

Advent Candles
Advent Candles

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 1:67-79

 

“Comfort, comfort ye my people…” With these words George Frederick Handel begins his great oratorio, Messiah. As I quoted last week, the masterpiece ends with a grand chorus proclaiming “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 5:13). But long before we get to that triumphant conclusion we hear a lone voice, crying in the wilderness tender words of comfort and forgiveness, hope and salvation. The story of the Christ who reigns with glory and power begins with words of comfort and compassion

The writer of Second Isaiah, addressing his people living in exile, proclaims that their days of distress are about to come to an end, that God has forgiven them and desires to bring them home. With surpassing irony he declares, “’Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” Ah but is this reward and recompense what we might expect – harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction? No, the prophet promises, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” The word is one of restorative rather than retributive justice. God’s steadfast love surpasses all judgment.

These are beautiful words expressing lovely sentiments. But really, can we honestly claim to live with such hope, given the distress and destruction of our own existence? True, we are people of privilege with little or no thought of living in exile. We are blessed far beyond the average citizen of the world today. Still, we live with the threat of violence and terror, the rage of our sisters and brothers, the specter of poverty, the bloat of consumerism, the destruction of the planet. Our peace is uneasy. In truth, do we not live as far from the commonwealth of God as the Judeans lived from Jerusalem during their Babylonian exile?

“Comfort, O comfort…Speak tenderly…cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Don’t we sometimes long to hear such words spoken to us? Would we not like for someone, our father perhaps, to sing such a song of comfort, of tenderness, of forgiveness and restoration to us? Maybe it’s not such a stretch to hear Isaiah’s song sung on our behalf. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This is a word for you and me.

The news this week has been filled with Ferguson and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. While we may have a variety of thoughts, feelings and opinions about this matter, we cannot ignore that those who have taken to the streets, who have lashed out in anger are still our sisters and brothers, as are those who have protested peacefully, those who have had to police the protests and those who have upheld the judgment and opposed the protests altogether. How are we to respond in compassion to such a range of expression? I have no easy answer, except to remind us that, as the body of Christ, we are called to compassion, to feel with others as we also utter words and engage in works of comfort, justice, healing and peace.

Here is one father’s song. How will we receive it? “’My emotions are all over the place. I don’t know what to feel. I’m just, I’m just here. I’m empty off of what happened,’ Michael Brown Sr. said in a back room at Greater St. Mark Family Church on Tuesday afternoon. ‘The whole thing with the death of my son and the verdict. I’m just crushed.’ The Rev. Carlton Lee, Michael Brown Sr.’s pastor, said the last three months have been extremely tough for Brown’s parents.  ‘Right now he still wants peace but at the same time he’s full of pain, full of hurt.’” Can you hear, can you imagine the hurt, the pain? Where is the word of comfort, the work of compassion, the measure of healing? Ironically, such words of hope are part of Michael Brown’s father’s song, uttered before the grand jury verdict.

“My family and I are hurting, our whole region is hurting. I thank you for lifting your voices to end racial profiling and police intimidation – but hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone. We live here together, this is our home. We’re stronger united. Continue to lift your voices with us and let’s work together to heal and to create lasting change for all people regardless of race. Thank you.”

Remarkable words of hope. As we embrace Isaiah’s words of comfort, tenderness, forgiveness and restoration, could we also join in this father’s song of hope for a day when racial profiling, police intimidation, destroying property and hurting others is left behind us? In compassion, could we commit ourselves to bringing about incredible, positive change that would make the world better for everyone, everywhere?

I was struck by a story shared on Facebook yesterday. It showed this picture, along with the following caption. “Peace among protest: A Portland police officer noticed a 12-year-old boy holding a sign that read ‘Free Hugs’ during a Ferguson demonstration in Oregon. The officer started talking to the boy about the demonstration, school and life. When they were done talking, the officer asked if he was going to get a hug. The boy teared up — and obliged.” Silly sentimentalism, like the cover of today’s bulletin? Maybe so, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to believe that these kinds of tender, comforting, forgiving, healing embraces are possible – for all of us.

Another father, centuries ago, sang a song over his infant son. It, too, was a song of hope. Old Zechariah, the priest, had been struck dumb for questioning the angel’s promise that a child would be born to him and his wife in their old age. At the time of the child’s naming, his speech was restored so that he could confirm God’s name for this special child. His song is sung to a people living in oppression instead of exile. The Romans ruled the land and his people chafed under the bitter yoke.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Has the old man gone mad in his time of silence? What is he talking about? It’s one thing to read from the scrolls of the ancients, but he’s talking like this is happening today, in our presence. Does he think he knows something we don’t? It all sounds pretty unrealistic, don’t you think?

One by one they slink away in embarrassed silence, leaving only a handful of stalwart believers to hear his quavering voice come to the climax of his aria. “…you, child, my sweet baby boy, miracle of my old age, you will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Such tender words of promise, such powerful words of hope, such amazing words of vision! Could it be so, that little John was to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one to announce God’s miraculous coming among his people? Then the coda, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

As with Isaiah and Michael Brown, Sr., God’s reward and recompense is not harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction. It is restorative rather than retributive justice which breaks like the dawn upon us, guiding our feet in the way of shalom, of peace and well-being, of healing and wholeness and home.

Well, if they had stayed they probably would have laughed at Zechariah’s vision, disdaining his silly sentimentality, mocking his song of hope. But, for some reason, these songs of fathers past and present keeping coming round. Somehow we can’t quite let go of them. As Desmond Tutu reminds us, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” There is something deep in us that longs to see through the shadows, even the shadow of death.

For us who claim to be followers of Christ, the promised one who comes to bring tender comfort, compassionate forgiveness, salvation and shalom, Brian McLaren writes this: “To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a dream, a desire, a hope for the future.” However, it is not enough to just hold hope. He says we need to “translate that hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.” He concludes, “…let us begin this Advent by lighting a candle for the prophets who proclaimed their hopes, desires and dreams. Let us keep their flame glowing in our hearts, even now” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 66). In the light of that candle’s glow, let us sing the songs of fathers who have held hope in their hearts, proclaimed hope with their lips and lived hope in their lives that it might be so with us as well. Amen.

Hope of the World (November 23, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 15:4-13

 

It seems that today’s worship service is, of necessity, a hybrid. To begin with it is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. As one liturgical year draws to a close and we anticipate a new one in the season of Advent, it seems appropriate to recognize and celebrate the fulfillment of the Christhood in life of the child whose birth we will soon recognize and celebrate. The story comes full circle and begins again. The little boy soon to be born once more ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God in glory.

And of course it is the season of the great US holiday, Thanksgiving, with its dual emphasis on family togetherness and conspicuous consumption. Surely we must sing either “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” or “We Gather Together,” along with other songs of thankfulness for God’s blessings. Before facing “Black Friday and its aftermath, we will gather around tables groaning with the abundance of the feast. We will share the things for which we are grateful before eating ourselves into a stupor and falling asleep before televised football games or seasonal spectaculars.

Many congregations plan their annual stewardship drives to culminate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the generous spirit the season evokes. We are no exception.   Today we have asked you to bring your pledges of support so that we might budget responsibly for the ministries of First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, in the coming year. Laura and I and others have asked and will continue to urge you to give generously in the spirit of gratitude for all that with which you have been blessed. As I have said once already this season, I am not embarrassed to ask you to give to support the budget because I believe in the ministries of this church and I believe in your witness as part of God’s beloved community. This congregation – that is, us – matters in this community and in the larger world as we worship, learn, care and serve together.

Then we have been on this journey with Brian McLaren, trying to understand how “we make the road by walking.” Because we need to move on to Advent next week, there were two chapters of the book and six wonderful scripture texts to consider for this week. If you’re not feeling a little overwhelmed by all this, you can rest assured that I am. However, undaunted by the overabundance of possibilities, we plunge ahead. Perhaps we will find a convergence of all the themes laid out before us for today. It is not unlike the rich array of dishes laid out for us at Friday’s Gratitude potluck, which, in the end, made a meal!

So let’s pick up where we left off last week. If you remember, our “Song for Sending Out” was the great hymn by Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World.” This is one of my favorites and its words remained with me through the week, especially its opening phrase, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.”

I suppose on Christ the King Sunday the tendency is to think of Christ enthroned in glory. I know that when I googled images there was a rich collection of paintings, carvings and mosaics of the triumphant Christ, crowned in splendor. Still, there is something compelling in the Harkness image of Christ who, because of his compassion, is the hope of the world. We can glory in Christ ascendant. We can sing wholeheartedly the hymns to the Christ who reigns with God in heaven: “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne…” But how well do we understand this God who takes on human form and dwells among us out of concern for the well-being of creation?

It’s a challenging paradox, this God of glory who is also the Christ of great compassion. Hear Harkness’s prayerful words once more:

Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.
Save us, your people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

In the midst of abundance and celebration, do these words speak to you? Fearful hearts, conflict rent, consuming passion, false hopes and aims? Does any of that sound familiar? I think both Isaiah and Paul heard something of Harkness’s longing in today’s texts.

Paul is writing to a people by “conflict rent.” There was a battle going on among the Christ followers in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. If it was not an all out dispute between who was in and who was out, there was certainly tension between who was more and less favored. We may not be caught up in that particular conflict, but how many such battles can we identify in our world today and how many of them affect our own lives, at least indirectly? Can you name a few?

Paul says that this is the “hope” we find in the scriptures, that “…the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant[s us] to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to explain how the Jewish Messiah is also the Christ who welcomes all, Gentiles included, from before the beginning of time. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike find their hope. Hope of the world – not just part of the world, not just some of the people, not just aspects of creation – it’s the whole wide world.

Perhaps Paul’s vision was well summarized in this morning’s special music:

Many members, one body; many hearts, one hope, one faith in You.

            And when we disagree teach our eyes to see that we are one

in the family of faith, the family of faith, joined by the miracle of grace.

 

We are brothers, we are sisters…children of the one Creator of all.

            So as we live and grow, help us always know, that we are one

in the family of faith…

Compassion does that to you. It makes you aware of all that’s around you. It helps you hear the hopes and fears, the dreams and challenges of others. It give you access to the hearts and minds of everyone you encounter, if you will let it function in yourself. This is one of the crucial identifying characteristics of the Christ, the capacity for compassion, to feel as the others feel, to see as the others see, to share, ironically, in a common humanity. Christ sees and understands our fearful hearts, our conflicts, consuming passions, false hopes and aims. Christ also shares our dreams and joys, our laughter and play, our communion with one another and all creation. Compassion offers a uniting vision of what the world might yet be.

Isaiah’s vision is somewhat different but perhaps still related. You may also remember from last week that I began my sermon with several “texts of terror” – Joshua’s instruction to obliterate the seven tribes that occupied Canaan and a couple of the more violent passages from the Psalms. These verses from the second chapter of Isaiah come as a kind of oasis in the grim landscape of destruction promised for a disobedient, unfaithful people. Most of the first chapter of Isaiah and much of what follows today’s text is a prophecy of doom, related to all those empires that have and will conquer Israel and Judah. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:10-15).

Not exactly an encouraging word, is it? But here is the hope in these first verses of chapter 2. Walter Brueggemann points out a rhythm to Isaiah. He says, “For all its harshness, the tradition of Isaiah characteristically moves to hope” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 1-39, p. 24). He affirms that “There is hope, but it is deeply postsuffering hope. Yahweh’s wrath is deep and serious and will be outlasted only by Yahweh’s resolve to bring Jerusalem to its true and proper function as a place of justice. The poet looks historical threat full in the face but holds out for the holy purpose of Jerusalem…” (op. cit., p. 22). The day will come when the nations will stream to God’s holy mountain, seeking instruction in peace and justice: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life:
still let your Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.

I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on the glitter of the holiday season. There is much to celebrate and much for which we can be grateful. Still, even in a time of celebration, it is important to remember that there is much to concern us in the world around us and in our own lives. There is still trouble all over this world and parties and shopping and even celebratory worship services will not make it less so. Maybe in this season we can celebrate and be grateful for the Hope of the World. Maybe we can be touched by the Christ of great compassion. Maybe we can share the hopes and fears, the joys and concerns of all those we encounter. Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with one another as one family of faith. Maybe we can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Maybe can pledge ourselves not to learn war anymore. Maybe we can heal the earth’s wounds and end all bitter strife.

Hope of the world, who by your cross did save us
from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt:
we render back the love your mercy gave us;
take now our lives and use them as you will.  Amen.

 

No Other Rock (July 20, 2014)

sermonsNO OTHER ROCK

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 20, 2014

Text: Isaiah 44:1-8

 

“No other rock. “ “No other rock.” It’s a strong statement. There is a rock like quality to the words themselves. “No other rock; I know not one.” I was caught by these words as I read through the lectionary texts for today and they have stuck with me.

This passage from Isaiah is offered as an optional Hebrew scripture text for today. I could find less background on it than I usually do. In fact, when I googled “God as rock,” looking for Words of Preparation, the vast majority of the quotations had to do with “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Some of those words were tangentially related to religion, but I am not enough of a fan of that musical genre to construct a sermon linking Isaiah and Kiss, Queen, the Who and the Sex Pistols.

The search for images for the bulletin proved more fruitful. In my imagination there is no more fitting rock than Yosemite’s Half Dome. I suppose a case could be made for El Capitan, but Half Dome is the rock that immediately came into my mind’s eye. Undoubtedly there are other iconic rocks strewn about this planet that would spring to mind in different parts of the world, but, especially here in California, it’s not hard to make the case for Half Dome when you hear the words, “No other rock.” It towers majestically above the valley flower.   It is resoundingly solid, impregnable, beautiful. It speaks of something or someone stable, secure, reliable beyond anything we could construct ourselves, no matter how clever or skilled.

This text from Second Isaiah is addressed to a people who had been uprooted, who had lost family, home, nation and a god in whom they had put their trust. Have you ever known that sort of uprootedness, the loss of all that is stable, secure, reliable? Still, it is not so easy to put ourselves in the place of the children of Israel so many centuries ago. We are much more sophisticated in sustaining our security as a nation and we are certainly more modern in our understanding of God.

In reflecting on this text, Steven Albertin writes, “Israel’s world had fallen apart. Everything that had reassured her of her chosen status and the faithfulness of her God (the temple, the monarchy and the land) had been destroyed and possessed by the Babylonian hordes. The Babylonian gods had made Israel’s god look weak and puny. Marduk had won. Yahweh had been defeated and disappeared into the desert” (Steven E. Albertin, “I Told You So!” crossings.org). It’s not a matter of “no other rock,” it’s a time when there seems to be no rock at all, nowhere to turn, no one to look to. All is lost.

For 100 years or so the children of Israel lived in exile in Babylon. Of course, there were faithful folk and religious leaders who encouraged the people to hang on to their historic faith, to keep up their hopes, to trust in Yahweh. No voices were stronger than prophets who exhorted the people to repent and return to their sacred covenant with Yahweh while promising an eventual return to the land.

Albertin continues, “After languishing in exile for more than two generations, the rise of Cyrus and the invasion of the Persians destroyed the hegemony of the Babylonians. Israel began to trickle back to her homeland. The exile was over but the road back would be long and difficult. Israel’s faith had been tested to the core. Could she still trust in a god who seemed so weak in the face of other gods? Could she still count on Yahweh after having suffered so much? In a world filled with many gods each offering its particular promise and blessing, why should Israel still count on Yahweh?” (op. cit.)

This was a crucial question for them, as indeed it may be for us. Who is this Yahweh, this King of Israel, Redeemer, Lord of Hosts? Why should we trust this God? What has this God done for us lately? They had to answer this question for themselves as individuals and as a people, a religious community as, indeed, do we. Enter Isaiah, Thus says [God] who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear…I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.” Beautiful words, a strong claim. How did they, how do we, come to trust them?

Who is this Yahweh, this God, that we should put our faith here? Samuel Giere asks, “Who is this Yhwh in a world whose horizon is filled with so many possible objects of worship – so many gods?” He goes on, “This question is as contemporary as ever. The world in which we live is wrought with objects demanding our devotion” (Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8, July 20, 2014,” workingpreacher.org). I imagine that we claim to be ardent monotheists for the most part. We have been taught to turn to this one and only God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

But if we were forced into a situation where we had to name another god or two or three, who or what would be on your list? I’m not thinking so much of other historically religious figures such as Buddha or Mohammed, but where else do you sometimes turn, looking for stability, security, salvation. Nicholas Lash says, “all human beings have their hearts set somewhere – if only on themselves.  For most of us, there is probably no single creature that is the object of our faith.  Most of us, in other words, are polytheists” (Nicholas Lash, Three Ways in One God: A Reading of the Apostles’ Creed, quoted in Brent A. Strawn, “Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8, July 17, 2011,” workingpreacher.org).

Do you see how you might be a polytheist in this sense, one who has a back-up plan, an extra god or two, in case the one and only God doesn’t come through? Yahweh, God, our Rock and our Redeemer struggled mightily to help the children of Israel to see, to feel, to understand the reality of God’s constant undergirding presence. They struggled just as mightily to cover all their bases – a golden calf just in case. Give us a king. How about wealth, influence, prestige, power? You don’t really expect us to throw ourselves on your mercy and trust wholly in you, do you? A few weapons of mass destruction and vault full of gold bullion for added insurance. Oh yes, and a gun in every hand and, while you’re at tighten up those borders. We don’t those others coming through our backyard.

Marduk looked pretty good for awhile, but now Babylon is overrun and we have a new set of powers, Persian gods with which to acquaint ourselves. It’s tiresome always being confronted by someone new, some other way of seeing the world, some hitherto unknown threat. Who knows who or what may see us through this time? We thought we had it figured out and it’s all come apart again.

Then the ancient whisper comes echoing down the centuries, the nagging reminder that “there is no other rock.” A light appears in the darkness. There is a turning, a repentance, a remembrance. Thus says [God] who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: ‘Do not fear…I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.’” “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.”

Yes, there is silence. Once again, as with Job, the challenge is thrown down and there is no one to answer. No god to take up the challenge. No other rock of refuge and redemption. No other hiding place or hope of salvation. And then, the still, small voice, the surpassing gentleness, sounding in the silence, “Do not fear, or be afraid…”

And we are comforted for a while. We find shelter in the rock, hope in the promise, blessing in the relationship. But then troubles arise and doubt creeps in or something new and shiny comes along to tempt us and we are off. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” How often have we sung those words from the depths of our being?

In the end, God foregoes the arguments, the law, the prophecy, the psalms and wisdom literature, and comes in person, comes among us as Jesus, the Christ, to show us once and for all that there is no other rock. I don’t mean here to argue that Jesus is the only way to God. I do mean to say that it is the truth of our tradition. It is an unmatched way for us to know who God is and what God is about in our lives and in our world.

First and last, alpha and omega – a God of passionate justice and deep peace; a God of unceasing creation and tender redemption; a God of infinite love and unsurpassed compassion; a God in whom we can put our trust, anchor our hope and live out our faith; a God in whom we live and move and have our being – “There is no other rock; I know not one.”

A Note from Pastor Rick

Three candlesJan and Peter Gunderson seem to being having a wonderful trip to Scandinavia based on pictures they’ve posted on Facebook. We miss Jan’s music but it was great to have Ruth Winter playing piano last Sunday and this. Ruth always adds a lot to our worship. Oleta is slowly making her way back into the office. It is good to see her smiling face and have her handle some of the administrative details of our congregational life. I am very pleased that Doug Davidson has agreed to stay with us until we find our new Associate Pastor. He did a great Time with Children and Youth last Sunday on the Parable of the Sower.

We’ll continue with the Hebrew Prophets this week as we consider a beautiful poetic text from Isaiah. There is “no other rock” he says than Yahweh, the Rock of Ages. Of course there are more words and images for God than we can imagine. This notion of God as rock, as someone or something solid, dependable, protective is one people have turned to for centuries. There are undeniably times when each of us, no matter how smart, wise or strong needs shelter from the storm. Every Sunday before the sermon, I pray that my words and our meditations will be acceptable to God who is our “Rock and our Redeemer.”

See you Sunday at 10 AM for Worship, Sunday School and for the patio hour to follow.

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

Pastor Rick  

MORE LIGHT…MORE LOVE…MORE LIFE