A Strong Foundation (8/16/15)

Sanctuary is openA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, August 16, 2015

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17

Twice in the last three years I have made a pilgrimage to Overland Park, Kansas, for the biennial Mission Summit of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. These trips have been particularly evocative not only because Kansas is my birthplace but also because my earliest memories come from that part of the world.

Overland Park is a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, where our family lived from 1950 to 1953. For me, that period spanned ages three to six. As I have mentioned before, during those years my father was the founding pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, the suburb next to Overland Park. In that time of the post-war boom in the church, American Baptists had a program called “Churches for New Frontiers,” in which they purchased land and planted churches in promising suburbs.

My father, following a missionary yen, left a church of 1000 members to pastor a congregation of 13, which met in someone’s living room where the pulpit was the top of a new-fangled television set. At least this is the story I’ve been told. The vivid memory I do have from that time is of my father, wearing work clothes and his grey fedora, helping to roof the first building on the lot at 75th and Roe. That building was eventually the parsonage, but in the beginning it served as the church building. Upstairs was left open as a single large room which served as the sanctuary and the rooms in the lower level functioned as classrooms.

I don’t know how much of that building beyond the roof was the work of parishioners, but I’m certain someone laid a strong foundation there. I don’t mean only the foundation of the physical plant. After 65 years, that little house is long gone, but Prairie Baptist Church seems to be going strong.

I also can’t tell you the full extent of my father’s evangelistic passion that led him to leave a large congregation for one that didn’t even exist when he signed on. It must have been some of that same passion that led Paul to travel all around the Mediterranean carrying the gospel to the Gentiles and planting churches all along the way. Part of the story of my father’s missionary journey across Kansas was that, in spite of low pay and a growing family (my younger sister, the last of four siblings was born in 1951,) he stayed long enough to lead the congregation through its first crisis. He helped the congregation through the tension that arises when a second wave of members arrive, challenging the comfort and control of the charter members. I believe my father, like Paul, was a “master builder” who laid a strong foundation and the congregation weathered the challenge and grew and prospered.

People in Palo Alto also laid a strong foundation for this congregation now in its 122nd year. We have a long and rich history of faithful witness and service. But, as we face an unknown, uncertain future, I wonder what it is that constitutes a strong foundation for a church. In the hymn we just sang Rod Romney wrote that the “The church’s strong foundation is God’s eternal love…” Does that sound right to you? Is that the rock on which our church is founded, the pillars sunk deep in the soil that lift our spire towards heaven, the grounding from which our ministry rises and shines? Is it a foundation on which we can continue to build?

We know that Paul was dealing with a contentious congregation in Corinth. He believed he had laid a strong foundation – the one foundation of Jesus Christ, the sure foundation of the empowering Holy Spirit, the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. But he was worried about what was being built on that foundation. He was afraid that false prophets, bad teachers, and self-centered preachers were leading the people astray and creating chaos in the congregation. I suppose my father must have worried that the charter members of Prairie Baptist Church would not be hospitable to new folk, would not offer a warm welcome to strangers so that the message of God’s eternal love would distort and die from inbreeding.

How do we encourage one another and work together to carry the gospel forward into God’s future? In a column on “adaptive change,” Amy Butler reflects, “The old ways just are not working. The church is in need of creative leadership to take it into the future. We might need to think outside the box, to consider solutions we have never thought of before, to pursue adaptive change. What will this mean?” she asks, then answers, “Well, it will mean that people will not be happy…but life moves on…and the Spirit of God blows fresh wind wherever it wills. It’s our job to respond, discomfort or not. It’s adaptive change, and it’s true for our individual lives and for the church.”

In conclusion, she wonders, “When will we have the courage to boldly embrace this kind of change, to encounter the new opportunities that come as possibilities and opportunities instead of problems? Change is hard. This is a true statement. But change comes, whether we want it or not. The Spirit of God is always creating new possibilities where we prefer to endow old institutions. Will we have the courage to embrace this change? Or will we keep searching the aisles, hoping to replace what we had?” (Amy Butler, “Choosing Adaptive Change,” 8-11-2015, baptistnews.com).

The strong foundation is laid, foundation of God’s eternal love. The question is what will we build on it moving forward? Paul says we might resort to “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw.” But we know that, literally, wood is the only one of those resources with which we might build a building. Paul is more concerned with the qualities that characterize a congregation than he is with building a church building. He is wants us to consider when the refiner’s fire is lit, what will be destroyed and what will be purified?

Remember the three little pigs? Neither the house of straw nor the house of twigs survived the wolf’s bad breath. Only the sturdy brick structure built on a strong foundation withstood the horrible huffing and puffing. We have been given this strong foundation of God’s love for us and all creation, a foundation that can withstand any evil powers that threaten to disrupt us and consume us. What will we build on it?

I don’t mean to be a prophet of gloom, but the good news is being undermined, distorted and destroyed by the false prophets, bad teachers and self-centered preachers of our own time and place. The threatening powers are not just individual, they are also structural and systemic. Some of the biggest challenges to the church are embedded deep in our traditions and too often operate outside our consciousness – like racism, classism, sexism, power and privilege. As Amy reminds us change is hard.

Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus promised his followers three things. First, their lives would not be easy. Second, they would never be alone. Third, in the end all will be well.” “But,” he continues, “all is not well now, and that raises the question of how…how does God get us from here to there? How does God put things right?” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 245).

In this chapter on the “Spirit of Holiness,” McLaren focuses on God’s judgment, which, at first, struck me as a curious emphasis. As I imagine some of you do, when I hear the word “judgment” I think of “hellfire and brimstone.” We were raised to believe in a literal separation of the “sheep and goats.” It was better to be scared into heaven than to burn in hell. It was a terrible legacy that led us far from any strong foundation based on God’s eternal love. For me, anyway, the notion of eternal punishment simply will not reconcile with a God who is love and eternally loves by definition.

McLaren’s argument sounds to me something like the parent who expects the best of us because she loves us so. In his view, this a God of restorative justice not a God of vengeful retribution. The place of judgment is to make things right, to restore the blessed order of creation, to build the Beloved Community on the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. The call to be the best self, the best community that we can be is a call to fulfill God’s vision for us from the beginning of time.

Paul says we – you and I collectively, the church of Jesus Christ – we are “God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in” us. To live into that reality is not an easy thing. To establish God’s temple in the here and now, to be God’s dwelling place will constantly shape and re-shape our witness. It is inherently counter-cultural, not easy but worthwhile work. If we trust that we are never alone in the work, we can also trust that in the end all will be well.

In our words of preparation, McLaren writes, “If we believe in judgment [as] God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear. We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world. If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just and peaceable now. If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward light each day in this life. Then, someday, when our time comes to close our eyes, we will trust ourselves to the loving Light in which we will awaken, purified, beloved, forever” (McLaren, op. cit., pp. 247-248).

A strong foundation is laid. “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” Let the church continue to be built and re-built on God’s eternal love. Amen.

Anxiety, Judgement, Love

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:19 – 7:12 (The Message)

This week’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount is long and rich. Brian McLaren suggests three major themes from this text and I will follow his lead.  The choir had the first word in this exploration, singing about that which we count as treasure and where we store it.  The key words that come out of this part of the text hold the affirmation that “wherever your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” This is a simple and challenging statement. The things, ideas, feelings, beliefs, people you value also capture your attention, your energy, your commitment.  As Eugene Peterson phrases it, “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” So it’s important to take the time to know and understand what you are storing in your heart.  It will determine your heart health and your general well-being.

I.  ANXIETY

So Jesus teaches, “You can’t worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you’ll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can’t worship God and Money both.” There just is not room in a healthy heart for such disparate treasure. You can’t love God and stuff. God always trumps whatever it is you’ve accumulated. It may help to remember that whatever material goods you’ve stored in your treasure chest came from God in the first place. There isn’t anything we prize and collect that doesn’t come originally from the Creator of All.

Remember those first commandments Moses recorded? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:2-5). I think this is what Jesus is reframing in positive terms as he reminds us that we will find our hearts focused on what we treasure. What treasure could be more valuable than the God who made us and loves us with unimaginable love?

Then, “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.”

Isn’t that an arresting turn of phrase – “careless in the care of God”? What, me worry? Can you imagine living that freely? Without a care in the world? Do you hold some precious memories of childhood when we walked the earth carefree? Or perhaps you’ve watched children at play and longed for that degree of freedom. I know this is a pretty romantic notion.  We understand that children have their own worries, often as challenging and intense as those of adults.  But there are those moments in the lives of children (and maybe even grown-ups, occasionally,) when the wonder and joy of existence overcome every challenge and concern. It could be that this is what Jesus had in mind when he chided his adult disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

“Careless in the care of God.” As Ethel Waters used to sing with such conviction, “Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…I  sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” This is the level of care God offers, if we would just accept it. We really don’t have to be in charge, controlling everything or anything.

I mean “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.”

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

Relax. Chill. Take it easy. Don’t be so caught up in getting that you miss out on all that God is giving. And, friends, what God is giving is beyond amazing! Look at the cover of your bulletin.  I started out with a lovely image of lilies since that’s the flower named in the most familiar versions of this text. But when I read Peterson’s paraphrase using wildflowers, my mind went immediately to fields of wildflowers blanketing our California landscape from mountain meadow to blooming deserts.  I remember once driving to Los Angeles in the spring time, passing great expanses of poppies and lupine, shining, iridescent in the shimmering sunlight. Could anyone but God create such beauty?

Flowers growing in profligate abundance, running wild and free across the countryside. If God can do that, surely God can take care of our needs. No necessity to cram your closets and cabinets with the latest fashions and beauty aids. Don’t you know you’re surpassingly beautiful just the way God made you? Remember the poster that asserted, “I know I’m somebody special ‘cause God don’t make no junk”? “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.” Surely that is a prescription for heart health. “Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

So following McLaren in our Words of Preparation, “try telling yourself: My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about.” All worry does is add an unnecessary dimension of stress to your life. There is nothing you can fix or change through worry. The price you pay for anxiety is that same heart stress we referenced earlier. If you fill your heart with anxiety, how can it be healthy?

 

II. JUDGMENT

Then there’s judgment. Jesus says, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.”

It’s probably helpful here that Peterson shifts the image from specks and logs to smudges and sneers.  I think the latter image speaks more clearly to you and me in our time and place. Still, I speculated at Bible study on Tuesday that this original image must have elicited a chuckle from the crowd if not an outright belly laugh. What a clever way to put us in our place, our rightful place. Get the log out of your own eye first.  Well, who walks around with a log in his eye? Absurd – perhaps – but you get the point while laughing a little at yourself.

However, the notion of wiping the sneer off your face, of eliminating that superior air, of shedding that patronizing stare that withers the other, that’s a different story. That may hit too close to home. As people of privilege it can be a real challenge to take care of our own tendency to judgment before attending to the smudge on somebody else’s face. “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says and how quickly and quietly they slink away (John 8:7).

For some reason, maybe because it’s a kind of tongue twister, I liked and memorized the King James Version of verses 1 and 2 of chapter 7. “Judge not that ye be not judged for with the judgment ye judge ye shall be judged.”  “…with the judgment you judge you will be judged.” It seems to me there is a kind of grand, karmic truth here. “Your chickens will come home to roost.” “You will reap what you sow.”  “Your actions will come back to haunt you.” “When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” How many more clichés and familiar sayings can you think of that contain this truth? More often than not our judgment of another is something we wrestle with, consciously or unconsciously, in our own lives.

Again, with McLaren, “try telling yourself: My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others.” There is no treasure in harboring judgment in the heart (though it seems worthwhile for some.) Such an accumulation will inevitably lead to soul shrinkage and a kind of deadly heart sickness. For who can claim to love God, who is love, while judging, condemning, hating sister or brother? Self-righteous judgment is a terminal ailment. Let go and be healed.

III. LOVE

“Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?”

“Here is a simple guideline for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

How deeply do we believe in grace? How broadly do we trust in God’s care? How thoroughly do we give ourselves over to God’s steadfast love for us? And how does this shape our response to and compassion for others? I know we don’t always get what we want. We can’t always have it our way. There is suffering, pain and death. There are challenges, conflicts and detours as we walk our way through this world. People get in our way or disappoint us or hurt us or betray us. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is so much we do not understand and cannot control. Still, Jesus affirms that the God who conceived us in love will always care for us. As the writer of Deuteronomy says, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 37:10) – God’s great arms of love and grace for you and me and all the world.

With McLaren, can you “try telling yourself: My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved”? Truly three times may be extreme but perhaps it takes God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, all three, to convince us that we are indeed loved. If the treasure we store in our hearts is this very love of God, our hearts will be healed and whole. To love God with one’s whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself is treasure enough for this life and all life to come. Amen.

Anxiety, judgement, love

Several more familiar challenges from the Sermon on the Mount this week. Brian McLaren organizes them around three themes – anxiety, judgment and love. Jesus warns against getting caught up the first two since our lives and our living ought to be grounded in love – love for God, for neighbor, for self. The foundation of this love is God who, in the end, embraces and cares for us as if we were her children. And, come to think of it, we are! What difference might this understanding make to our Lenten journey? What if what we gave up for Lent is anxiety and judgment, so that we might center our lives more fully in the love of God?

In Adult Spiritual Formation we will continue to explore nonviolent resistance, drawing on The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink. Hugh Satterlee has challenged us to place ourselves earlier in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We come upon the robbery in progress. Do we turn our backs, scurrying away? Do we take up sticks and stones and attack the robbers? Or is there a “third way,” a way of nonviolent resistance? Give it some thought and bring your response to class on Sunday.

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

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

Pastor Rick  

TO BE GOD’S PEOPLE! 1 Peter 2:9-10

God's People