Resurrection and Life (4/2/17)

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Text:  John 11:1-45 (The Message)

One more long and complex tale from the writer of John. As with the others we have covered in this Lenten season, we could spend several weeks trying to unpack this story and still not come to any definite conclusions about the many difficult questions it raises. What thoughts and feelings come up for you as you’ve heard this old, familiar story read one more time?

I already vented, in this week’s Midweek Message, my frustration with Jesus choosing to delay going to the home of his dear friends when one of them was sick and dying. This is not the way friends ought to treat friends, is it? From my very human perspective, it doesn’t seem to serve God’s glory for Jesus to increase the suffering of his friends by his absence. But nearly every commentator gives some well-argued explanation for Jesus’ delay. There is also powerful good news in this challenging story.

Continue reading Resurrection and Life (4/2/17)

To Hell With You (February 15, 2015)

Jacob Marley in chainsA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Text: Luke 16:19-31

I suppose there are several elements of today’s service that are playing with fire, if you’ll pardon the play on words. I don’t know that I have ever before preached on hell. I’m sure I’ve referenced it but only to say that I do not believe in a literal hell – the lake of eternally burning fire depicted on the cover of today’s bulletin or the threatening expletive that is the sermon title. However, as we make this road by walking, Brian McLaren has asked us today to consider “Jesus and Hell.” To help us in our exploration, he has given us two texts – the story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke and the separation of the sheep from the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Both texts promise dire consequences for those who do not pay attention to the poor and needy of this world.

McLaren argues that originally the Jewish faith had little interest in the afterlife, but through centuries of acculturation to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Zoroastrian and Hellenistic beliefs and practices the faith changed to accommodate visions of life after death. Clearly Jesus believed there was more to life than what one experiences between birth and death. But when he offers these parables of judgment, is his purpose to describe what the life to come is actually like? McLaren doesn’t think so and neither do I. In commenting on this text, David Lose reminds us that “…a parable is a parable…Parables aren’t told to give [us] a complete theological system or to address ultimate questions once and for all. They are meant to give us a glimpse – often [a] surprising, even jarring glimpse – into the kingdom of God. They present various slivers of the ‘kingdom logic’ of the God who regularly surprises us with God’s compassion and concern. So,” he concludes, “maybe this parable isn’t interested in explaining to us how people get to heaven but rather invites us to look at the people around us – right here, right now – from the perspective of this peculiar logic of God” (David Lose, “On Stretching Parables, 9-23-2013,” workingpreacher.org).

This is consistent with what McLaren argues in our Words of Preparation when he says that Jesus was actually “un-teaching about hell” while offering a “transformative vision of God” as one who “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 113). It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to suggest that the rich man ends up in a hell of his own making. There is a different set of values for life and death in the beloved community of God. The standard belief among those to whom Jesus ministered was that goodness is rewarded with prosperity and general well-being while sin is punished by poverty and illness. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that same belief system strongly operative today, perhaps even in our own lives. It makes us uneasy, then, when Jesus tells stories like the rich man and Lazarus or the separation of the sheep from the goats. We worry that he might be saying “to hell with us” because of our privilege and how we exercise it.

The rich man – notice he doesn’t even get a name in the parable, though later tradition called him “Dives,” which is really just Latin for “rich man” – is not just rich. He’s over the top in letting everyone know he’s rich. Think of someone who is exorbitantly extravagant in flaunting what they have. Richard Vinson, in his commentary, says the sort of rich person Jesus describes would have been the subject of satire and lampooning, much as she or he might be today. These satirists would have been “…making fun of a real trend toward conspicuous displays of wealth during the first century, as the so-called Pax Romana brought unprecedented disposable income to Rome’s upper crust.” Sound familiar? “Romans often lamented the loss of the old values of thrift and Spartan simplicity, and some emperors tried to enact…laws prohibiting expensive clothing or jewelry or foods. Luke’s rich man is thus both a recognizable type-character from satires and comedies and an icon for a whole class of real people” (Richard D. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 530).

It’s not just that the man had money; he was a fool with his wealth. His arrogant attitude allowed him, daily, to step over poor Lazarus, sick and disabled, begging at his door. Lazarus might have survived on the scraps from the rich man’s table, but even this was too much bother for this rich man. He left Lazarus to die “like a tramp on the street.”

This is where Jesus’ great reversal gathers momentum. The rich man may not have had eyes to see, but God does. Lazarus is not rewarded for his piety or his poverty. He is graced by God’s compassion. He finally finds comfort in the “bosom of Abraham.” Remember, God “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count.” God’s compassion and grace are of a different order than our own vision of reward and punishment. For God, everyone counts.

Now, ironically the rich man dies about the same time, perhaps a victim of his conspicuous consumption. He practiced a gluttony which certainly could not have been good for his heart – literally and figuratively. In the Jewish system of Jesus’ time, Hades and the arms of Abraham were the places where souls went to await the final judgment, the Day of the Lord. Is there a possibility that intermediate stations provide time and space in which one might yet reflect and repent before the final end? The text doesn’t address this.

Suffice it to say that the rich man remains clueless even when “tormented in the flame.” Though he can see across the chasm that separates them (indeed, as he could see across the reverse chasm that separated them before they died,) he still does not see Lazarus as a child of God. “Send Lazarus to cool MY tongue.” “Send Lazarus to save MY brothers.” Not a word of remorse or repentance for the way he treated Lazarus who, in the beloved community of God, is also his brother. He just doesn’t get it and Jesus is saying that, until you get it, nothing changes. Until you see with the eyes of your heart the suffering of your sisters and brothers your heart will remain cruelly and lethally congested.

Most of you know by now, that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite gospel stories. In it the great Victorian author provides a spot-on commentary on this parable. Remember how, in the beginning, we meet Ebeneezer Scrooge, of whom Dickens writes, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster…He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

But, as we know, Christmas is a time of miracles, and old Ebeneezer, who is decidedly not extravagant with his wealth but is equally without compassion, is given a wondrous opportunity to repent. Several spirits appear to help him see the error of his ways. Unlike Jesus’ parable, spirits do bridge the chasm with a message from the heart of God. The first of these is his miserable old partner, Jacob Marley, who walks through the doubly locked door to Scrooge’s chambers, dragging an onerous chain made up of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

Marley’s message is this:

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!

“I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“…A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.

“[Humankind] was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“At this time of the rolling year…I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

“That is no light part of my penance…I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

Dickens’s parable is no less and no more fantastic than the one told by Jesus. To hell with you is never God’s desire for us or any aspect of creation. Like Marley’s chains and the rich man’s torment, hell is something of our own creation, “forged in life, made link by link, and yard by yard, girded on of our own free will…” It is fortified every time we step over Lazarus at our doorsteps, simultaneously seeing and not seeing. And, Marley’s wisdom notwithstanding, it is something we can let go of by letting go. Scrooge gets it in the end, Jesus gets it all along. In the words of another old spiritual, “All my troubles will be over when I lay my burden down.” To give myself over to life in God’s beloved community is to undo the chains and embrace the goodness of God’s creation. It is to enter into partnership with God who loves everybody to make sure that everybody knows they count. The good news is that it’s never too late to choose to live in God’s goodness and grace. God help us to find our way.

Amen.

Going to hell

As I said to the Bible study on Tuesday, “This week we’re going to hell.” Of course, I didn’t mean literally, but this week’s theme in We Make the Road by Walking is “Jesus and Hell.” Both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament use language of judgment and punishment. These are among the most challenging texts in the Bible. I confessed to the Bible Study group that I find Mathew 25:31-46 a particularly difficult passage. How easy it is to walk by or even step over the “least of these” without even seeing. The parable’s punishment for failure to see is particularly harsh.

I don’t think the story’s intention is to scare us onto the “straight and narrow,” but it is a powerful challenge to wake up and pay attention. Luke’s story of the rich man and Lazarus follows a similar trajectory. The rich man’s sin is not his wealth per se; it’s that, day after day, he steps over the destitute Lazarus without seeing him. “Let those who have eyes see and ears hear,” Jesus reminds his followers over and over. I don’t believe that Jesus or God desires that anyone “go to hell.” The challenge, the invitation, is to wake up, to pay attention, to practice compassion and to live love.

In Adult Spiritual Formation, Susan Bradley will be sharing with us from a couple of trips she’s made recently – one to Haiti to teach photography to young Haitians and one to Cuba with a group of musicians. This session may well open our eyes to parts of the world with which we are not sufficiently familiar.

See you Sunday at 10:00 AM. Bring some others along to share the day.

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

Pastor Rick  

Not This Time (April 6, 2014)

sermonsNOT THIS TIME

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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Texts: John 11:1-45 (The Message)

Some of us have stood at a tomb, faced an open grave, scattered the ashes of one beloved. We know what it’s like to be confronted with the stark reality of death and the flood of conflicting emotions that comes with it. I’ve stood at different sites at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise, Idaho, and the Veteran’s Cemetery next to it, to bury my father, my brother, my nephew, my step-father and-step sister, my brother-in-law, not to mention my beloved piano teacher and a dear high school friend. Not so long ago I stood by the open grave of Patrice Heath as her casket was lowered into the ground. We prayed and wept and celebrated her life, but it is not an easy thing, under any circumstances, to lay a loved one to rest.

Today’s ancient story is just such a situation. It’s also another occasion to encounter Jesus in his divinity and his humanity. It’s a long, complicated story. You have heard it read. I will not attempt to unpack it all this morning. Before I get to my main point though, I want to say that there are aspects of the story that trouble me. I have difficulty with Jesus’ decision to tarry long enough for his friend to be good and dead before he shows up. I hear the words that it is all for God’s glory and the ultimate good of those who will come to see and believe because of what he will do. And I understand that Christ is operating on God’s time, not Martha’s or Mary’s or mine. There is mystery here that I cannot completely understand and I still tend to side with those who wonder why he didn’t show up sooner.

I will share with you the best I word I’ve found so far about this action and then leave you to decide for yourselves. Fred Craddock writes of this text, which is the last and greatest of the signs that Jesus gives in John’s gospel, “At least two features mark sign stories. First, Jesus acts according to his own time and not according to external pressures…In this Gospel, Jesus’ actions are ‘from above.’ Second, to say this is a sign story is to say that its primary function is revelation. Some truth about the meaning of God’s glory and presence in the world is made known through Jesus’ ministry. For the stories to function this way, they must be seen to operate on two levels. On one level Jesus heals a cripple, opens the eyes of the blind or raises the dead, but on another level he reveals a truth about life eternal which God makes available in Jesus Christ” (Fred B. Craddock, “A Two-fold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21, 1999, p. 299).

What we do see here, which is much easier to understand, is Jesus’ compassion. The closer he gets to Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the more deeply he feels their pain, their grief, their loss. He starts out proclaiming that those around him will see a mighty miracle to the glory of God. It will help confirm his claim to being God’s Chosen One. But after his encounters with both Martha and Mary, grieving and chiding him for not coming sooner, he arrives at the stone-sealed tomb. It is chilling.

Remember we started today’s reflection standing before open graves and sealed tombs. Remember what it feels like – pain, loss, grief, aching hearts, gratitude for a loved one – all the myriad feelings that can flood our consciousness to the point of temporary numbness followed by inevitable tears. That’s Jesus on this day. We have a pretty good idea of how he felt when he suddenly broke out in tears. Plain and simple, no elaborate embellishment, he just stood in that place of stone-cold death and wept.

For me, there is nothing more powerful than these tears. In fact, I wonder if there could have been any raising of his dead friend without these tears.   Lazarus is raised on the flood of Jesus’ tears. Marjorie Suchocki writes of the universal consequences of Jesus’ compassion for his friend. She assures us that we are not “…forsaken by God in our own times of trouble. God does not prevent trouble from happening: we are finite, we are fragile, it is not possible to live without some kind of trouble entering our lives. We all face the worst of troubles in the deaths of those we dearly love, as well as in our own impending death. God is not impassive in the face of our troubles: Jesus wept. God feels us in our pain; the love of God is empathic, a ‘feeling with’” (Marjorie Suchocki, “Fifth Sunday in Lent,” April 6, 2014, processandfaith.org). God loves us and cares for us more than we’ll ever know or completely understand.

I want to share another tale of the tomb, one that is also marked by an act of remarkable compassion. I was reminded this week of a powerful film I’ve seen a couple of times in the past year. Its title is “God Loves Uganda.” The film is the work of Academy Award winning documentary director, Roger Ross Williams. Williams is a young, gay, African American, raised in an American Baptist Church. The focus of the film is on the way that certain right-winged, Christian fundamentalists are fueling the homo-hatred that has grown in the past few years in Uganda. This has culminated in virulent anti-gay laws. At one time parliament was considering being gay as a capital crime. If you’re interested in any of this you can see the movie for yourselves. It has been well-received at a number of film festivals around the world, including Sundance.

senyonjo-rick.fwThe story I want to take from the film involves an Anglican bishop named Christopher Senjonyo. I was moved to tears of my own by this excerpt from the movie; then I had the great privilege to meet the bishop last October at the AWAB event in Providence, Rhode Island. For what it’s worth, I consider this man to be a peer of Bishop Tutu and the other great elders who share their wisdom in today’s troubled world. He moves with grace and dignity and is filled with the love of God for God’s world and God’s children. At 82, Bishop Christopher has been stripped of his standing in the Anglican church of Uganda because of his unwavering support for the lgtbtq people of that country. Among other things, after 34 years of service, the church took away his pension.

Another character in the film is a young gay activist. A very courageous soul, Jonathan Hall is eventually murdered. The scenes that touched me so deeply are from Jonathan’s funeral. Before his family, friends and supporters, many of whom were lgbtq, the presiding clergyman proceeded to unleash a homo-hating monologue basically condemning the young man at his own funeral. It is an appalling illustration of the church at its very worst. I can only imagine Jesus wept once more at the cruelty and injustice being perpetrated in his name.

After the service, the scene shifts to a smaller group of friends and family accompanying the casket to the grave site. The offending clergyman is nowhere to be seen, but there, in the middle of the procession, is Bishop Christopher. Arriving at the open grave, the casket is lowered into ground. At this point, Bishop Christopher spontaneously steps forward to offer a blessing. His are simple words of loving grace and compassion for the murdered man and all those suffering the hurt and hatred that has infected his people and their culture. Once more, Christ, in the person of his representative, stands at the tomb of his friend weeping, and then offers the blessing, the word, with the power to heal, to make whole. On that day, resurrection was practiced in the African countryside.

At the end of today’s text, the consequence of Christ’s compassion is revealed. Remember, the outcome of the raising of Lazarus “…was a turnaround for many of the friends who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him. But,” the text continues, “some went back to the Pharisees and told on Jesus. The high priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the…ruling body. ‘What do we do now?’ they asked. ‘This man keeps on doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have.’” So, “from that day on, they plotted to kill him” (John 11:45-48, 53).

In this world there are consequences for living a life of compassion – Jesus knew it; Bishop Christopher knows it, yet they remain faithful. As Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, perhaps he also wept for his own coming abandonment and execution; as the bishop continues to minister in Christ’s name, he is now threatened with seven years in prison for loving and supporting his lgbtq sisters and brothers.

But we also know the story doesn’t end with sealed tombs or prison sentences. Jesus’ cry to “Come out,” the bishop’s prayer of blessing, prove that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate, that resurrection is possible through the Living Word of God. And we, friends, are part of that Living Word, the Body of Christ. Jesus effects the miracle of the raising of his friend, but he leaves a vital part to that community of family and friends gathered round. “You unbind him. You set him free. You work for justice and peace and love and compassion. I’ve given you all you need, now you make it real in your own lives and in the lives of all you encounter.” Not this time. Not this time will death or hate or injustice have the victory, because we have seen the resurrection and the life and it has set us free. Amen.

Raising Lazarus

Raising of LazarusIn Adult Spiritual Formation this Sunday we will continue our consideration of hunger as a Lenten concern. If you have had experiences of dealing with hunger and the hungry over the past few weeks, please be ready to share those. We will also consider some common “experiment” around hunger (a la Mark Scandrette) in which we might engage as a congregation.

Once more in worship we will be instructed by one of those wonderful stories from the gospel of John. This week it’s the raising of Lazarus in which we encounter the deep and abiding faith of Martha and Mary. Here Jesus affirms that he himself is the Resurrection and the Life and then breaks down and weeps in front of his dead friend’s burial place. Even with the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, the pain of death still touches the heart of a very human Jesus. This is the last and greatest of the “signs” recounted in John’s gospel. It becomes the tipping point for those religious authorities who fear Jesus’ threat to their power. It leads rather directly to Christ’s crucifixion. The end is in sight or is it?

See you Sunday at 10 AM for worship (with Communion) and Sunday School. Bring someone along to share the Lenten Journey with you and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation.

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

Pastor Rick

Fall is making its way

leading prayers in worship
leading prayers in worship

It feels like Fall is in making its way, and not just because the calendar tells me so.  The nights are getting cooler, football is rampant, everyone is back in school and many of the wonderful trees in our community are thinking about changing color.  We have made a good beginning to Fall at First Baptist.  I am always grateful for all you offer to sustaining and nurturing the life of our congregation.  It takes all of us to be US.

Thanks to Andy Kille, our web master for the clear and helpful presentation on the “blogosphere” and our role in it. The new FBCPA blog page is just around the corner.  Be sure to subscribe when invited.

The lectionary texts for the last few weeks have been challenging and, at times troubling.  This week is no exception.  The Parable of Dives and Lazarus is a harsh indictment of economic inequity and raises the question if anyone with wealth can find their way to the bosom of Abraham and God’s everlasting arms.  I believe there is a way but sometimes it’s a real struggle to find it and then walk it.

By contrast, Psalm 91, our focus text for Sunday, reminds us that we are sheltered under God’s abiding wings, that when we are at our lowest, most vulnerable, God reaches out and draws us into God’s protective presence.  There is comfort and healing there, like balm in Gilead.  At the same time, we hear a promise that when the time comes we will also be borne up and carried forward by those same wings.  Please join us at 10:00 AM for worship and Sunday School, followed by Adult Spiritual Formation led by Pastor Tripp.  This week we will view the first in a series of videos from Sparkhouse, featuring Lillian Daniels on the topic, “Religion: Spirituality Is Not Enough.”  Invite someone to come with you.  It is good to be here.

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

12.00

It feels like Fall is in making its way, and not just because the calendar tells me so.  The nights are getting cooler, football is rampant, everyone is back in school and many of the wonderful trees in our community are thinking about changing color.  We have made a good beginning to Fall at First Baptist.  I am always grateful for all you offer to sustaining and nurturing the life of our congregation.  It takes all of us to be US.

 

Thanks to Andy Kille, our web master for the clear and helpful presentation on the “blogosphere” and our role in it. The new FBCPA blog page is just around the corner.  Be sure to subscribe when invited.

 

The lectionary texts for the last few weeks have been challenging and, at times troubling.  This week is no exception.  The Parable of Dives and Lazarus is a harsh indictment of economic inequity and raises the question if anyone with wealth can find their way to the bosom of Abraham and God’s everlasting arms.  I believe there is a way but sometimes it’s a real struggle to find it and then walk it.

 

By contrast, Psalm 91, our focus text for Sunday, reminds us that we are sheltered under God’s abiding wings, that when we are at our lowest, most vulnerable, God reaches out and draws us into God’s protective presence.  There is comfort and healing there, like balm in Gilead.  At the same time, we hear a promise that when the time comes we will also be borne up and carried forward by those same wings.  Please join us at 10:00 AM for worship and Sunday School, followed by Adult Spiritual Formation led by Pastor Tripp.  This week we will view the first in a series of videos from Sparkhouse, featuring Lillian Daniels on the topic, “Religion: Spirituality Is Not Enough.”  Invite someone to come with you.  It is good to be here.

 

Adult Spiritual Formation will be led by Andy Kille.  Andy has been our webmaster for several years now.  For some months, Andy, Pastor Tripp and I have been developing a new approach to our online presence through a “blog page.”  Andy will be here to help orient us as we launch this effort – “To the Blogosphere and Beyond:  Navigating the Congregation’s New Blog Site.”  Come, explore where we have never gone before!  See you Sunday at 10 and stay for ASF.  Bring someone along to share the day.

 

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

 

Pastor Rick

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