What Are You Looking For? (1/15/2017)

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Text:   John 1:29-42

What are you looking for? At first glance it seems like a rather prosaic question, hardly the stuff from which a poem, song, or proclamation would be constructed. “What are you looking for?” “My keys.” “You mean the ones lying here on the counter?” “What are you looking for?” “My glasses.” “You mean the ones sitting atop your head?” “What are you looking for?” “My car. I know I parked it somewhere in this lot.” “Push the alarm on your key ring.” “What are you looking for?” A question that often has a simple, practical answer.

But sometimes it is a question of deeper meaning. In Luke’s gospel, he asks it three times in the famous fifteenth chapter, “What are you looking for?” “A coin that was part of my dowry and is great value to me.” And she cleans the house until she finds it. “What are you looking for?” “Oh, one of those ornery lambs has wandered off from the flock and I’ve got to find it before dark falls.” And he searches and searches until there in the dusk he finds it mindlessly grazing on the far side of the hill. “What are you looking for?” “Home, or at least the sustenance and security it provides for my father’s hired hands.” And there is his father waiting to welcome him as a child who was lost and is found, who was dead and is alive again. In every case, the answer to the question is a cause for great rejoicing. There is nothing simple or prosaic about these images of God’s Beloved Community.

Continue reading What Are You Looking For? (1/15/2017)

Joy Bursts Forth (12/13/2015)

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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Text: Luke 3:7-18 (The Message); Philippians 4:4-7

Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers. Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! You nest of snakes. Hardly the holiday greeting you were expecting this morning or wanted to hear. Is this some sepulchral spirit of Christmas past trying to scare old Scrooge into changing his wicked ways? Is God mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore? Has this prophet gone mad on locusts and wild honey, giving the business to those who have come out to hear him?

Is this the text we will really want read on Gaudete Sunday, that Sunday supposedly focused on joy? Yet, here it is, courtesy of the committee that sets the lectionary. I know the group that worked on this Sunday’s worship in our Advent Planning Workshop chose Paul’s exhortation of the Philippians to “Rejoice!” as the focus text for today. I apologize to them for straying into the wilderness with John. As we have wrestled the past two weeks with the stark contrasts between the anxieties, fears and terrors of the world in which we live and promises of hope and peace, it seemed disingenuous to leap directly into joy today. Still, we ought to get to rejoicing before we’re done The truth is my own feelings for you are much closer to Paul’s for the church in Philippi than John’s for the crowd at the Jordan.

In fact, you may have observed that I am not John, the Baptist. Instead I am Rick, the Baptist. I confess a fascination with John’s exhortation but I do not see you as a brood of vipers or our community as a nest of snakes. You may also have noted that most of the time I talk about we and us rather than you. I assume that whatever it is you wrestle with I do as well, that the challenges of my life are not altogether different from the challenges in yours. And certainly we inhabit the same planet, holding its difficulties and possibilities in common. John may feel free to shake his finger at those who come to hear him. Perhaps as an ascetic and prophet, promised of God to be proclaimer of the coming Messiah, he has earned that right. But I feel no more worthy of untying John’s sandals than he did those of Jesus.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, I wonder how we can connect John’s word of repentance to Paul’s words of affirmation and the joy of this day? The consensus among the reflections I consulted is that joy comes with righteousness, not the kind of perfectionism too often associated with righteousness, but with setting your heart right with God and finding right relationship with all creation. Both John and Paul affirm this, each in his own way.

John’s over-heated rhetoric is full of hyperbole. He shouts to get the attention of the crowd and to hold it. Perhaps that’s what you have to do when you’re preaching outdoors without the aid of amplification. The older I get the less I like people shouting at me. But, note that people are flocking to hear John, walking all the way from Jerusalem and the surrounding territory to the Jordan in the blazing sun, just to be called names and chastised. How many of us would make the effort? Right, I didn’t think we’d be organizing a field trip any time soon.

Still, look at the crowds being drawn to practitioners of overblown proclamation in our own time. How do you explain the appeal of many of our current candidates for political office? Why are people drawn to the bad news hurled at them? How many show up because it is “the popular thing to do”? I know John, the Baptist, doesn’t belong in the same category with Donald Trump and Anthony Scalia. Nor do I intend to do depth analysis of the psychological appeal of a negative word. Suffice it to say, humans often tend be fascinated, even obsessed with bad news. Just flip on your television for the daily broadcast.

But once John has their attention, he has something more to say, something that lowers the heights and lifts the depths and makes the rough places smooth. He may not articulate it the way Jesus or Paul will, but he, too, has a vision of God’s Beloved Community. He sees the possibility of it coming on earth and he longs for that coming. Maybe his rhetoric is over the top, but joy comes in the fulfillment of such longing. John has come to proclaim it so.

What John knows, however, is what we all know somewhere deep inside. In order for the Beloved Community to become real some things have got to change. When he shouts “Repent!” he’s not urging folks to writhe around in sack cloth and ashes, ruing their wrong doing and pleading for mercy at the hands of an angry God. He’s urging people to get with the program. Turn things around. God’s Beloved Community will come through our own practice of justice and equity, of peace and love, of compassion and care. Repentance is not meant to be the burden of self-flagellation and striving for perfection. It’s the joy of living in right relation to God, to neighbor, to all creation, even to one’s self.

To their credit the crowd gathered around John – at least some of them – don’t run in terror or turn their backs in disgust. They get the picture enough to hang in with him. They see good news in what he’s proclaiming and they want to tease it out. “What must we do, John? What must we do to be saved? What must we do to know health and wholeness? What must we do to experience real joy in our difficult lives and troubled world? And John is ready for them. He shows compassion for those that turn to him in much the same way Jesus will. The answers are simple – and challenging, but if it was too easy it wouldn’t really be satisfying, would it? Share, he says. Practice fair trade. Be honest in your dealings. In short look to right living, the living that links to right relationships. Another way to put it, love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself. If your living, your relationships, are rooted in love, you will certainly see that that joy bursts forth. It’s like the old song sings, “Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth” – when I recognize it and embrace it as my way of life – “how can I keep from singing?”

Bruce Epperly writes of Luke’s account of the Baptist, “What is central to John’s speech is not the harshness of his language – indeed, his inflammatory rhetoric – but the possibility that we can change our lives.” He says, “We can let go of injustice, materialism, consumerism, and inequality to become citizens of a realm of freedom, love, and abundance.” God’s Beloved Community! He concludes, “John always points to Jesus’ messianic age: his refining fires temper the dross of our lives to make our lives something of beauty and love, and prepare us to meet the coming Christ. The good news is that when we change our lives, we open to a wellspring of new possibilities for ourselves and our communities” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary, Advent 3, December 16, 2012,” patheos.com). And joy bursts forth.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he is saying something similar to what John said but in a gentler tone. Still, Paul is urging his friends to get with the program and to stick with it. He is concerned with right living, the sort that brings in God’s Beloved Community. He urges his friends in Philippi, “Let your gentleness” – your generosity, your magnanimity, your compassion, your Christlikeness – “be known to everyone…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And joy bursts forth. How can it not if we live like that?

Repent! Rejoice! They’re related, more than we had thought. As another old Quaker song sings, “to turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.” Or perhaps it is in our coming round right that we find our delight, that joy bursts forth. In a contemporary story of repentance, of making an about face, and rejoicing that may speak more to us than John’s preaching on the snake pit, Phillip Campbell tells of his grandmother who late in life left her long-time congregation to join another. When questioned as to this surprising move, she said “she liked it there because of the positive message she received. For the first time in her life, she felt God’s loving presence. ‘God wants me to be happy,’ she said. ‘I never knew that before. I thought church was about keeping me from doing what I was not supposed to do. And I never felt like I was good enough.’ Late in life, Campbell says, “my grandmother heard a word of God’s grace and experienced a joy she had never known before. She began to heed Paul’s instruction to the church in Philippi: ‘Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again I will say, rejoice’” (Phillip E, Campbell, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, “Philippians 4:4-7, Pastoral Perspective,” p. 62).

God wants us to be happy, to know joy in right living, to find the wonder, the grace, the healing of the Beloved Community. Yes, there is work to be done. Yes, times can be tough and the way hard. Yes, sometimes God seems far away and hope wanes, but then a voice is heard, crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Holy One. All creation shall see the salvation of God. The Beloved Community will be known on earth as in heaven. We will see Emmanuel, God with us. And, lo, in the midst of it all, joy bursts forth. Amen.

Prepare the Way (December 8, 2013)


A Sermon by Doug Davidson
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, December 8, 2013

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

I want to begin with a confession.

I am not a neat person. The truth is, I’m pretty messy. It’s not that I seem disorganized, but in reality, I always know exactly where everything is. I’m not messy like my old boss in my very first job after college, who had mountains of paper all over his desk, on the floor, and every other flat surface in his office, but somehow he always knew exactly where everything was. I’d go in and ask if he had a copy of the budget report and he’d (shuffle through papers) and say, “Here it is.”

No, I’m not like that. I’m just messy.

Now, if you were to come over to my house for dinner, you might not realize what a mess I am. Because chances are, if we know you’re coming, Jen and I have both arranged to take a couple of hours off that afternoon to clean up. Maybe we’ve even taken Elliot out of school early, so he can take care of his part. We’ve got the process down to a science; we know who does what, and we know exactly how long it takes to transform our house from its usual state into a place the feels worthy of guests. So by the time you arrive on the scene, things should look pretty good. As long as you don’t show up an hour early, and you don’t ever open the bedroom door, you might never realize what a mess I can be.

When I knew I was going to be preaching about John the Baptist, this wild-eyed prophet and his call to prepare the way of the Lord, one of the first images that came to mind was our last minute cleanup when guests are coming over. Perhaps John wants us to tidy up our mess—or at least hide it where it won’t be seen. Get the house in order. Someone really important is about to arrive—and you definitely don’t want to be found as you really are. It’s time to straighten up.

I think that’s one way we could read John’s call to “prepare the way”—and there’s probably some truth in it. In fact, if John the Baptist were sitting here in the front row, dressed in his camel hair suit and leather belt, munching on some locusts with a wild honey chaser, he might tell us that’s exactly what he had in mind.

But I think there’s something else in this story, a truth that to me seems a bit more subtle and slippery. It’s one of those elusive truths that I feel like I get into focus for a little while, and then I lose it. So I’d like to flip this familiar story over, shake it a little bit, and see what else we might find. Because I think this Advent story about John the Baptist might have something else to tell us about the upside-down nature of the reign of God—and the Christ who always comes to us in ways that confound our expectations and assumptions.

After all, it’s pretty clear Jesus wasn’t exactly the kind of Messiah John the Baptist expected. We meet John near the very beginning of each of the four Gospels. He’s the zealous prophet who heralds the coming of the Lord. He’s kind of like the hype man at a concert whose job is to pump up the crowd, before the main act takes the stage. John knew that One was coming who was more powerful that he was. If ever there was anyone equipped to really understand who Jesus was, it was John.

Yet both Matthew and Luke offer us a second glimpse of this Baptizing prophet. And in that second scene, we see John a few years later, locked away in prison, where he is soon to be executed. And, clearly, he’s having his doubts. He’s told everyone that, in Jesus, the kingdom of God has come. But Jesus is not ushering in God’s reign in the ways John expected. John imagined a Messiah who would end Rome’s domination of his people and their land. But as John languishes in prison, he begins to wonder if maybe he got it all wrong. Maybe Jesus wasn’t the one, after all.

Do you remember what he does? John sends a group of his own disciples to Jesus to ask him “Are you the one who is to come or is there another?” I love how Jesus answers. He tells John’s disciples, “Go tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

These are the signs Jesus offers to assure John, to assure us, that, in him, the reign of God has come. God’s reign is made real in a Jesus who meets people in poverty, in sickness, in brokenness, in weakness, in the hurting places of their lives. It’s revealed in a Christ who meets each of us, not after we’ve got ourselves all cleaned up, but in the midst of our mess. It is revealed in the Christ who meets us where we are.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to John in the wilderness for a minute. Matthew tells us “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea” came to be “baptized by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (3:5-6). We tend to think of baptism as a Christian practice, but for Jews in the time of Jesus, it was quite common. It was thought of as a cleansing rite, “intended to prepare a strongly demarcated people for the coming day of God.”[1] In fact, in those days, there was a baptizer on every street corner. What was, perhaps, unique to John’s baptizing was his insistence on the need for radical change, or repentance. Indeed, if one were to boil the Baptizer’s message down to a single word, that word would be “Repent!”

Perhaps it’s John’s emphasis on repentance that explains the dramatic change in tone we find beginning at the midpoint of our Gospel story today. In the first six verses, we read that people from all regions and all walks of life were coming to John to be baptized. But Matthew tells us that “when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” he was furious. “You brood of vipers!” John exclaims. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7-8). From the cool waters of baptism, John’s attention shifts to fiery words of judgment.

Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees tend to get a pretty bad rap throughout the gospels—and often it’s for good reason. But these were people who’d given their entire lives to the practice of devotion to God. They were known for their “exacting interpretation and scrupulous observance” of the law. They took their faith seriously. They were the ones who never missed worship, and always stayed for the adult spiritual formation hour after synagogue. They were deeply invested in living out their faith. And they may well have argued that their vocations—their entire way of life—was all about “preparing” for the coming Messiah.

Yet John—and later Jesus—seems to suggest that this is the heart of the problem. This belief that their own houses were in order, this security they found in their own exacting religious practices and their identity as children of Abraham—these things about which they were most proud—were often barriers that kept them from the kingdom of heaven.

The baptism John practiced was a ritual of repentance that begins with confession. It begins in recognizing our own need. It begins in admitting that there’s a lot of mess and pain in us that we don’t know how to let go of. Or, to say it another way, such a baptism begins in recognizing that, in and of ourselves, we don’t know how to “prepare the way.” Our lives are unmanageable. We don’t know how to get our own houses in order. Repentance begins with the recognition that God’s path through the wilderness may be straight; but ours is anything but.

As I pondering this prophet and his message of repentance, I couldn’t help but make the connection to Nelson Mandela. Like John the Baptist, Mandela was locked in a prison because he preached of the need for radical change, change that was a threat to the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. In one of the many tributes written about Mandela this week, I found the quote that appears at the beginning of our order of worship. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela wrote: “To be truly prepared for something one must expect it. One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.”

When I first read that quotation, I assumed Mandela had written those words to encourage his fellow South Africans to live in expectation of a more just future, even though it was not yet a reality. I assumed he was encouraging them—encouraging us–to keep faith, to prepare the way by living in expectation of a future they had not yet seen.

But the real context of these particular words is very different. Mandela wasn’t talking about a future in which our hopes would be realized. When Mandela wrote “To be truly prepared for something one must expect it” he was writing about the likelihood that he was to be executed by the apartheid government. He was preparing to die. Both John and Jesus knew that same reality, the cost that can come from confronting empire. For John, it led to his execution in prison. For Jesus, it led to a cross.

Perhaps this is where the cool, cleansing waters of the baptism John proclaims meet the “fire” we find near the end of our passage. John warns those religious leaders that every tree that “does not bear good fruit” will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:10). This is an image of judgment, but it might also be understood as a fire that purges. For the Jewish religious leaders of John’s day—and perhaps for us—the false sense that we can “prepare the way” through our own efforts may need to be burned away. Perhaps our belief in our own adequacy is part of what needs to come and die, if new life is to be born in us.

During this Advent time, we prepare our hearts again to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, the one whose name means God with us. We are preparing to celebrate again the way in which God was born into this messy world in Jesus. Because of this we can proclaim that, in the midst of our hurts, and our struggles, and our insecurities, God is for us. Yet as David Bartlett has written, “God with us” means not only a God who is steadfastly for us, but one who stands against “the old pretensions and securities that prevent us from faithfulness.”[2]

You know, if you ever do come over dinner, and we have enough time to get the house cleaned up, one of the last things I usually do is go outside and sweep the path that leads up to our front door. If John really is calling us to get our houses in order, maybe that begins with sweeping away the deceptions we have about how we’ve already got it together. Because in the midst of all John’s firey language, I hear an invitation. It’s an invitation to let go. I hear an invitation to prepare to meet God as we really are. Fragile. Weak. Vulnerable. Broken. Messy. To admit our need. To let the illusions be burned away. To prepare our hearts for the coming of a King who is born not in a palace but into the mess of our human reality. To open ourselves to the coming of the one who can take the broken stuff of our lives and our world, and join with us to fashion it into something beautiful, something just, something life-giving.

We don’t need to tidy up. We don’t need to make ourselves “presentable.” We need to prepare the way by opening ourselves, so that we might be ready, during this Advent season and each day, for the miracle that is Christ, born anew, into our lives and into our world. Amen.

[1] Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 118.

[2] David Bartlett, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels, Andrew F. Gregory, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 21.

Pastor Rick: December 12

Thanks to everyone for the flexibility in scheduling our annual caroling and chili event.  We had a good turn out; we sang for several folk from our community who are not able to be with us regularly.  Then we gathered back at the church for chili supper.  I think the singing was much appreciated by those we visited.

Please remember our Friday evening Contemplative Services.  They are lovely, brief opportunity to spend time in the beauty of our sanctuary praying, singing and meditating our way through this Advent season.

This Sunday we will continue to spend time with John the Baptist as well as the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah and the apostle Paul as we search out the light of joy in this Advent season.  The challenge for us will be to look for the joy in the sharp critique and sometimes harsh words these biblical characters bring.  I suppose the real question is whether or not there can be joy in our lives and in the world if we do not get our house in order.   Yet, even in our wondering and our waiting Paul encourages us to “Rejoice in God always!”

Soprano Susanna Jimenez will be singing with the choir Sunday.  She will also supply some very special Music of Preparation when she sings “Rejoice Greatly” form Handel’s Messiah.  You will want to be here early to hear her.  After Adult Spiritual Formation, in which we will consider what it means for Christ to come into the world as we know it, we will take a little break before reconvening at Spiridons for their annual open house for the whole congregation.  We are always grateful to Alex and Nana for opening their lovely home and providing a fabulous party.

This is a wonderful time to invite a family member, friend, colleague, neighbor or stranger to join us in worship, sharing and learning.  See you Sunday before 10:00 AM and at the other events of the season.

May God bless us and keep us on the way,

Pastor Rick

Pastor Rick: December 5

banjo.fwWhat a lovely beginning we have had for the Advent season.  Thanks to everyone who has contributed in action and in spirit.  It seems that we are on the right road of preparation for the holy coming.  I urge you to participate in all the activities of the season as much as possible at the same time I encourage you to take time to prepare.  Both John and Jesus spend time alone in the wilderness as they prepare for the work to which God has called them.  We may not find ourselves in the wilderness per se, but some down time in all the crush of holiday madness may be just what God is calling us to – time to sit quietly, to consider what is to come, to pray that we may be ready, to search for wisdom and understanding, to contemplate the light that is coming into the world and how it is manifest in hope, peace, joy and love.

Sunday we will spend time with John the Baptist and his forebears  John’s is that alarming voice, crying in the wilderness for us to make ready the road to salvation, urging all who will listen to turn from the seduction of empire to the promise of God’s righteous reign.  In this process, we will also look again at Zechariah’s song, the “Benedictus,” which was the focus of our work with Jennifer Davidson last month.  What did we learn in those sessions that we might bring to our worship this Sunday?  How might all these ancient words of blessing and comfort, prophecy and hope help us prepare for God’s touch on our lives this Advent?

As part of your time of preparation, I strongly encourage you to join us for Friday night’s contemplative service in the astonishing beauty of our worship space.  I find this to be a holy, healing time and trust that you might, too.  The services are simple and brief, scripture, songs, prayer and silence.

Sunday, we will keep our caroling and chili supper at 4:00 PM, so we will also continue our sessions in Adult Spiritual Formation on the theme “Prepare the Way.”  This Sunday we will consider preparation for Christ’s coming – in our faith community.  What is it for which we hope in this season and how might its realization make a difference in us and around us?

This is a wonderful time to invite a family member, friend, colleague, neighbor or stranger to join us in worship, sharing and learning.  See you Sunday at 10:00 AM and at the other events of the season.

May God bless us and keep us on the way,

Pastor Rick