Three Questions (1/8/2017)

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Sometimes when I meet someone for the first time and they ask what I do, I will play the little game of giving them three guesses. Some are amused; some annoyed, but it’s not always easy to come out as pastor in certain circles. It isn’t that I’m in any way ashamed of what I do, but there are circumstances in which I hope people will get to know me before they pigeonhole me or judge me for what I do. Trust me, there are folk out there who have a negative, knee-jerk reaction to hearing you are a Baptist pastor. We have not always had the best publicity nor have we always been true to the gospel and it comes back to haunt us.

Anyway, three seems to be the number for the day – three gifts, three kings, three faces to the godhead, and now three questions.  Of course, the text does not actually say there were three wise men or magi. It does speak of three gifts, so tradition has also come to claim that there were three astrologers, students of the stars, who followed one from Persia or Arabia to Jerusalem and on to the village of Bethlehem in search of the one whose coming the stars proclaimed.  In that time and place it was not at all improbable that events of religious and political significance would be predicted in the heavens.

Continue reading Three Questions (1/8/2017)

Love Leads On (1/10/2016)

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

Sunday, January 10. 2016

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

So what did your horoscope predict for you today? My horoscope for the year says “You’re a rising star in 2016, Aquarius, when all hard work is acknowledged and rewarded…This year you will recognize potential that others may overlook. The Moon-Saturn opposition in your 2016 chart guarantees careful thinking and planning that won’t let you down. A Mercury-Pluto conjunction will give you the nerve to be bold, but only when it’s wise…Your 2016 strong Mars in Scorpio won’t let you sit still for long.” And finally, “Saturn in Sagittarius is your friend. Embrace it!” Well, who knew I needed to embrace Saturn in Sagittarius? It would take a wise one from somewhere outside my usual circles to make sense of all this for me.

I begin with this to exaggerate what we have come to know and expect of astrology today. But astrology was once an important scientific and religious field. Wise ones from more than one religious tradition studied the stars for signs of both secular and sacred import. These visitors who show up in Jerusalem looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews” are serious scholars, high priests, respected figures held in esteem in the land from which they’ve come. Some contemporary scholars say they come from Persia and are practitioners of the Zoroastrian religion. Others say they were from the star-studying traditions of ancient Babylon.

Wherever they’ve come from, it is a curious thing that they show up in the Christmas story and play a major role in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. In our conflated version of Christmas, the magi have been hanging out in the stable, huddled around the manger, since the beginning of Advent. Of course, that’s not what Matthew tells us at all. In this gospel there is no stable or manger or animals, no shepherds or even angel choirs. The magi – note they are not kings, though they may in some way represent the king of their country – show up at a house in Bethlehem sometime after the birth, led there by the fantastic star they’ve seen in the early morning sky.

In Matthew, this is a story of political intrigue. As foreign dignitaries, perhaps ambassadors, the magi make their way to the capital city, to the palace of the current king. This seems like a logical progression. Where else would you find the new-born king except in the palace? Of the course the reigning monarch is delighted to greet them – not! In an effort to figure out what is happening, Herod summons his own wise men, the high priests and scribes. Note how all these religious figures play roles in the affairs of state.

When his advisers – I imagine somewhat reluctantly, given Herod’s despotic reputation – tell him about this special baby, this anointed one, this messiah who is to shepherd Israel, Herod begins to scheme. In his most beguiling and unctuous manner, he questions the magi and then sends them off to Bethlehem with instructions to “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Right! He surely intends to bow down before some baby born in a backwater village to strangers and just turn the kingdom over to him on the spot. We know from what comes later that he fully intends to murder the baby and do away with the threat to his rule.

Fortunately, there is regular angelic intervention in Matthew’s story. The magi are warned to sneak out of town a different direction and Joseph is warned to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. It sounds like a refugee situation to me. Imagine, the king of the Jews, the messiah, the shepherd of Israel, begins his life fleeing political oppression, not unlike children of our own time, many of whom are not blessed to survive.

Love leads on. It burns in a mysterious star, leading serious seekers for wisdom and truth from Iraq or Iran to Israel. It speaks in dreamy angel whispers, leading pilgrims and refugees to safety from vicious despots and the threat of destruction. It draws peasant parents into welcoming and caring for Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh. Love leads on and nothing will ever be the same.

This is wonderful and intriguing story, in particular because it tells how love leads us out of religious convention, into strange and unexpected relationships. Here are pagan priests and princes, kneeling in adoration at the crib of a Jewish peasant child who becomes, for Christians, the Lord of all life and Savior of the world. Wonder of wonders! How can this be? Yet there it is in the very beginning of Matthew’s good news! A religious pluralism implying that in God all things come together.

Thinking on this lovely story led me to consider others related to it. I re-read O. Henry’s wonderful tale of “The Other Wise Man.” If you want a richly imagined account of who the magi were, where they came from and what their life was like, I recommend you take a few minutes and look at this classic short story. The gist of the story is that Artaban, the other wise man, is to meet his compatriots, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior for the journey to Jerusalem. His gifts are three magnificent jewels, a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl.

As he rushes to meet the others at the appointed time and place, he comes across a dying man. He knows that stopping to care for the man means he may miss the rendezvous with his fellow travelers. He is torn between pausing to help or racing on. “Should he risk the great reward of his faith for the sake of a single deed of charity? Should he turn aside, if only for a moment, from the following of the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing [man]?”

“‘God of truth and purity,’ he prayed, ‘direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest.’” He chooses to help the man, losing the opportunity to join the caravan of the other magi. He must sell his sapphire to outfit his own caravan for the long, perilous journey across the desert. Eventually, he arrives in Bethlehem a few days too late. There he is welcomed by the mother of a small child who tells him of the other strangers who were indeed there but left mysteriously under cover of night and of the young family who fled to Egypt. He finds he must use his ruby to ransom this mother’s child from the murderous hands of Herod’s henchmen as they move through Bethlehem, slaughtering the innocents.

After years of wasted wandering and fruitless seeking, he finds himself back in Jerusalem. The city is crowded for Passover and there is an ominous undercurrent to the day. Now old and despairing of ever finding the king, he gives his last jewel, his pearl of great price, to pay the debt of a young woman who is about to be dragged off to debtor’s prison. At the moment, an earthquake rumbles and a falling tile strikes the old man a mortal blow. As he dies in the young woman’s arms, she hears a faint, indistinct voice. The old man looks up and, with his dying breath, exclaims, “Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee an hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”

We all know the answer. Love leads on. What we expected, what we hoped for, may never be realized. If our prayer is truly “God of truth and purity, direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest,” love will lead us on the way of compassion and healing, peace and justice, generosity and hospitality. In the end, we may hardly be aware of the good we’ve done, of the transformation we have helped engender, of the sacred we have encountered in the everyday – and God will say welcome home.

In one other favorite story, Gian Carlo Menotti’s beautiful contemporary opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, the three magi stop for a while in the humble hut of a poor woman with a crippled child. When the woman is caught trying to steal some of the gold for her poor son, the wise Melchior sings:

O Woman, you may keep the gold; the child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter; his haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us;
he will bring us new life, and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.

To return a lighter note, I posted a couple of related items to our Facebook page this week. To give a little consideration to wise women, I shared the observation that floats around this time of year: “Three wise women would have arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and there would be peace on earth.” Surely there is humor and wisdom here – and a kind of practical love that makes enormous difference in the world. There is a place for high-minded seekers and devoted religious practitioners. There is also space for practical folk who roll up their sleeves and take care of business. There is room for both, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t overlap on occasion.

Finally, I found this parable of a wise woman. It seems she was traveling in the mountains and found a precious stone in a stream. Shortly afterward she encountered a hungry traveler who begged her for something to eat. She shared her food with him and then he saw the beautiful stone. He asked her for it and without hesitation, she gave to him. Not exactly the response we would expect from others or ourselves. Just a little too much, yes? A few days later the man found the woman and returned the stone. Again we wonder why such unexpected behavior. He should be long gone with his treasure. But here is what he said to the very wise woman, “I know how valuable the stone is but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something more precious.” Greed? No. In all humility he asks, “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.” Love leads on. It makes a way where there seems to be no way. It makes room where no space appeared available. It opens closed minds and cracks hearts of stone to let in the light, the light that illuminates all life and brightens every shadowed corner of existence. Love leads on. Will we follow? Amen.

 

Epiphany

This season of celebrating is almost over. Today is Epiphany – the day we celebrate the visitation of the Magi to the Christ child. In many parts of the world, today is “Christmas,” the day to celebrate “the Word made flesh.” Our Epiphany worship service will be this coming Sunday. Using Matthew’s familiar story, we will, with the Magi, follow the star from Persia to Palestine, through the streets of old Jerusalem till it comes to rest over the place in the village of Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph are caring for their new-born.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star of royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

May we be led by the perfect light of love – Jesus, the light of the world – into this new year and through all the years to come.

We will have guests in the worship service from Fools Mission, recipients of our special offering for January. They will be sharing the program’s mission and how it has affected their lives. In Adult Spiritual Formation, we will continue our exploration of the video series, Saving Jesus Redux. This week we will focus on the question “Who Was Jesus?” Invite someone to share with you in the wonder and joy, the mystery and the mission of the day.

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

Pastor Rick

Sage Singing (January 4, 2015)

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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Today’s story is one of rich and significant contrasts. It has characters whose hearts are both large and small, whose gifts are generous and deceptive, whose intent is worshipful and murderous. We have already heard about Herod and his song. Remember how Joy Caroll Wallis told us “Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression” (Joy Caroll Wallis, “Putting Herod into Christmas,” adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5, 2004, bigforums.com). This is Herod’s world and the only song he knows.

Then there are these “three kings of Orient are” who, “bearing gifts, traverse afar.” We sing about them every year and their wondrous guiding star. Just this morning we sang, “As with gladness sages bold did the guiding star behold…” Sages, wise men, from distant lands are a key element to the Christmas story. But have we ever listened for the song they sing? If we are very still, we might hear some sage singing as they come closer to the place where the baby was born.

Their hearts sing as they cover the miles between Persia and Judea, ambling along on the rhythmic ride of their steady camels. These scientists, cosmologists of their day, spend their time studying the stars in hope of discovering clues to the mysteries of the universe. They have seen a wondrous star rising in the southeast. They believe with all their hearts that it signifies something wonderful about to happen in the world. Without hesitation but with careful preparation they set out to follow the star. In part their heart song is for a great king who is to be born, one who will have a transforming affect on the world as they know it. Their song is one of devotion and worship.

They also bring appropriate gifts for such a king. “Gold is a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (used for incense) is a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12, “ Edgy Exegesis, January 6, 2013, patheos.com). Gold such as would be a fit for a king, incense for worship of a holy one and anointing oil in recognition of one who would lay down his life in service of the truth as he would come to know it. Gifts borne of insight, wisdom and understanding.

Sage singing comes from big-hearted believers. These sages, magi, priests of the Zoroastrian religion, throw open their hearts to welcome a king who promises to transform life radically. It does not restrict their hope and faith that this one who is to be born comes from a different religion. They are open to whatever way God chooses to work in the world; they will follow with their sage singing – “O come, let us adore him!”

On the other hand Herod and his company remind me of the Grinch. Their hearts have shrunk two sizes too small. Those whose hearts are full of fear and greed, of hate and anger have no room for hope or sage singing of any sort. If they sing at all, their songs are vicious, hateful and dishonest. Herod sounds sweet as honey when he oozes out instructions for the wise ones to “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” We know he has no such intentions. His fearful, shrunken heart only wants to do away with the competition. He has no vision of what the baby brings to the world. He just wants to be rid of it before it exposes him for the despot that he really is.

As we’ve noted, these sages come with gifts that burst forth from their singing hearts and are fit gifts for one born to be king, but a unique king who will eventually be murdered because he insists on being a different kind of king. Alyce McKenzie tells us that today “we need an ever-fresh supply of these three gifts to offer this child as he grows and becomes strong. We need gold to value his identity as a king over our lives. We need frankincense to affirm his identity as the Son of God. We need myrrh to remind ourselves of his identity as a crucified messiah, to prevent our forgetting the forces within ourselves and our world that threaten this precious life in our midst” (McKenzie, op. cit).

Herod, the master of deceit and ill will, promises no gift for the child except his malevolent presence. What he has to offer is a sword that will strike the baby dead before he ever has the chance to speak God’s truth and bring God’s way to life on earth. Of course, this is no gift at all. In fact, the taking of life is the very antithesis of gift giving.

These singing sages have traveled a long way – o’er “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.” Why have they embarked on this arduous journey? They come before Herod asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” – to pay homage, to bow down and worship the holy one. They recognize that God has come near in this little child and they want to pay due respect.

Herod professes the desire to worship him, too. But there is no room in Herod’s heart for worship. He is so self-absorbed, so determined to maintain his power that he cannot begin to fathom God’s open-hearted, self-giving way for the world. Herod’s point of view is to maintain power and domination, to exercise cruelty and violence. He can tolerate no threat to his narrow way. His rageful rule is murderous.

Hearts large and small. Gifts generous and murderous. Worship of God and self – these are some of the significant contrasts in this ancient tale. It comes down to us with questions about which singing we will listen for and which road we will travel. Will our hearts grow three sizes through this Christmas season or will they shrink to something tiny and poisonous? Will we give gifts that are appropriate and generous, that come from hearts large and open or will we give little, withholding the best for ourselves, giving only when it will net a good return? Will we fall down and worship God who comes near to us, year after after year, offering hope, peace, joy and love or will we be so self-absorbed that we hear neither angels nor sages singing the wonders of God’s creation?

Sages, leave your contemplations brighter visions beam afar.
Seek the great Desire of nations, you have seen the natal star:
Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn king.