Christ of Great Compassion (6/18/17)

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Text: Matthew 9:35 – 10:1 (The Message)

Several years ago now, Kathy Gillam was instrumental in organizing a conference on compassion at Stanford, hosted by the medical school and its Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The conference presenters included two great modern champions of compassion – the Dalai Lama and Karen Armstrong. At the time, Karen Armstrong was touting her evolving work with the Charter of Compassion, a sort of semi-religious creed, based on the Golden Rule. In Adult Spiritual Formation, Dan Cudworth led us in a study of the Charter. Last year the Satterlees and I read Into the Magic Shop, an inspirational memoir by James Doty, the director of the Stanford Center, about the origins of his own understanding of the connections between the brain and the heart in shaping and guiding our lives.

Thus we see that compassion has become a surprisingly popular topic of thought and conversation in a world like ours so often characterized by competition, success, accumulation, greed, bullying, enmity, and hatred. Hopefully there is a recognition, a growing one, that unless we learn to look out for one another and for the planet, prospects for the future are grim and perhaps even slim. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a lovely idea but come on. Get real. You have to take care of number one first, right? Well, maybe if you’re especially generous, you could make the focus of living you and yours. But that’s the extent of it.

Continue reading Christ of Great Compassion (6/18/17)

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To An Unknown God (5/21/2017)

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Text: Acts 17:22-31

For a little bit of context, let’s look at the verses which precede today’s text:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Now it may be that the Athenians were superstitious people – people who covered all their bases by erecting a shrine “to an Unknown God,” just in case they had missed a god in the creation of their pantheon of deities.  Or perhaps they were sophisticated enough to know that there were gods or dimensions of deity that would always extend beyond the human capacity to know.  At any rate, the writer of Acts indicates that Paul was unhappy to find such a proliferation of gods throughout the city of Athens.  However, he did not vent his anger with the Athenians over their polytheism in the same manner he would later with the Romans (Romans 1:18-23.).

Continue reading To An Unknown God (5/21/2017)

Up and Down (2/7/2016)

Pastor Tripp and Children enact transfigurationA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 7. 2016

Text: Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

Remember:

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill
And he marched them down again,
And when you’re up, you’re up.
And when you’re down, you’re down,
And when you’re only half-way up,
You’re neither up nor down?

We could get quite carried away around the campfire, singing this ditty faster and faster until collapsing in exhausted laughter.

But the truth is, that’s the way the road goes, that’s the rhythm of life – up and down, up and down. The old spiritual proclaims,

Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Oh yes, Lord.
But still my soul is heav’nly bound,
Oh yes, Lord.

Or if you prefer a more challenging version,

Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground.
Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Whichever route you choose, the up and down of it is inescapable.

I think that is the vital rhythm we find in today’s texts. Even though the second story about the healing of the epileptic boy is optional in the lectionary, I think it is essential that we link them. Jesus, Peter, James and John, the rest of the disciples, the crowd, the father, the son are all up and down at one point or another. Sharon Ringe insists, “The glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated” (Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 457).

To begin with, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray. There are times in this gospel and the others when Jesus goes off, alone, to pray. We understand this as a customary and important practice for him. We believe these times of prayer kept him centered and focused. They linked him to God and they energized him for the ministry in which he was engaged. This time he chose three leaders from among his followers to join him, to share his experience and learn from it.

Up, up, high on the mountain they went where the wind blew chill and the stars drew near. These three were among the disciples who had gained or desired special attention from Jesus, including elevated positions in the heavenly realm. Here they were chosen to share with him in his time of spiritual renewal. They must have felt very special. Only by the time they got all the way up the mountain, they were cold and tired. They just didn’t seem to have his stamina. They huddled together against the cold and drifted off to sleep.

If it hadn’t been for the dazzling light they might have missed the whole thing. The light shattered the darkness, disturbing their slumber. As they rubbed the sleep from their eyes, there was Jesus, shining before them, deep in discussion with Moses and Elijah. There was no doubt in their minds who his conversation partners were. The talk was about what lay ahead for Jesus as he “set his face toward Jerusalem,” about what it meant to hold to God’s law and proclaim God’s word, about what it would cost and what it would yield to walk God’s way.

Peter, James and John didn’t hear nor could they grasp the whole of the conversation. Still, they were amazed at what they saw and heard. As they watched the great lawgiver and the great prophet vanish from the scene, Peter blurted out, “’Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ —not knowing what he said.” That last part is crucial. He spoke before he thought. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful just to stay up here on the mountain with Jesus, basking in the beautiful glow of his transfigured face, “lost in wonder, love, and praise”?

Have you ever had an experience like that, something that was so wonderful, so fulfilling, that you just didn’t want to give it up, something so wonderful that you wanted to stay there forever? It doesn’t have to be spiritual in a religious sense. Maybe it was romantic, or pleasurable, or playful, or powerful, or compelling. You just knew that there was something in you that wanted to stay right there on that particular “mountain top.”

And why not? It sounds wonderful. Why not stay in that ecstatic state as long as possible, forever, if you could? What did Peter not know? What did he fail to understand? Suddenly the scene changes, the wind whips up, a thick, dark cloud covers the crest, enveloping them all, as lightning crackles and thunder rumbles. “This is my Son, my Beloved, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him, listen to Jesus. Isn’t this what they’d been doing all along? Apparently not closely enough. If they’d been listening, they would have had a better understanding of the significance of the conversation with Moses and Elijah. They would have had a better sense of what lay ahead for them all. They would have known that what goes up, must come down.

And sure enough, down they came, down off the mountain, right into the midst of a teeming crowd of seeking, needy people. At the end of Tony Kushner’s great dramatic fantasy, Angels in America, a key character, Prior Walter, offers these words as a sort of benediction,

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

After angelic visitations and amazing visions of heaven, Prior Walter comes to this sort of quixotic conclusion that there is “great work” that lies ahead and now is the time to begin. Listen to him – you are fabulous creatures, blessed beings. And what is that blessing? More life, always more life. This is the great work –the creating, establishing, nurturing, sustaining of life. We’ve seen the heavenly vision and now it is time to get busy, making it real on earth as it is in heaven.

Fresh off the mountain, Luke brings Jesus and his disciples face to face with a father desperate for the healing of his only son. The text says the father shouts at them in a most undignified manner, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” Can you hear the ache, the terror, the desperation in that cry? Imagine if it was someone you loved who was suffering so. This father had begged the disciples to do something, but they couldn’t pull it off, at least, not on this day. Jesus had given them power and authority and they had done some pretty amazing things during their travels from Galilee, but not today. Impatient and frustrated, Jesus scolds them for their lack of faith, for their failure to remember that they are “fabulous creatures,” blessed to bring life, before he heals the boy, restoring him, whole, to his father.

I wonder if there isn’t a sort of desperation in Jesus’ own frustration and impatience. He knows he doesn’t have much longer with them, much more time to teach them, to train them to do the great work that they are called to do on his behalf, in service of God’s Beloved Community. Once more they are left in amazement at the greatness of God and the miracles of the Messiah. But is it enough for them, or us, to stand there, gaping in wonder?

The reality is that down here, down in the valley, rolling across the plain, are the cries of those in need – in need of healing, in need of hope, in need of hospitality, crying for comfort, seeking for guidance, longing for love. Maybe we aren’t going miraculously to heal an epileptic boy, but there is so much work to be done to bring in God’s Beloved Community that each of us can find some way to contribute.

The reason that we shouldn’t separate these two stories is precisely because they tell us what to listen for. Marcus Borg argues that the two great and unique qualities of Jesus are his close connection with God and his compassion. Here we see exactly that – up on the mountain in deep and affecting prayer, down in that valley overflowing with compassion for those in need.

Heidi Neumark writes, “…living high up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of transfiguration…[It was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level” (Heidi Neumark, quoted by Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 456). That’s why we can’t sit on the mountain, Peter, wonderful as that might seem. There is great work to be done. Listen to Jesus. He’ll lead you in the right direction. All you have to do is follow. Listen to him. Take time to be with God, make time to be with your neighbors in need. Up and down, up and down. With his help and God’s grace, you will find the way. Amen.

Around and about

Through the month of May I will be teaching at PSR and ABSW on Tuesday afternoons and evenings. As a result I will be working for FBCPA on Monday afternoons. However, this Monday, February 16 is a holiday and the church office is closed and next weekend, February 21 through February 24, I will be using vacation days to participate in The Choral Project Tour to southern California.

While I am away this Sunday, we are delighted to welcome the Rev. Dave Robinson to our pulpit. As lead chaplain with CIC, he has been with us before. He will preach and also lead Adult Spiritual Formation, taking us deeper into the ministry the chaplains do in our county jails. Please come out to support him and hear about the important work of CIC.

In this Lenten season, Brian McLaren invites us to be “Alive in a Global Uprising.” The Lenten texts are from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. This week we begin with the Beatitudes. On this Ash Wednesday, Marcus Borg, of blessed memory, reminds us that Lent and Easter are “about following Jesus from death through resurrection.” This is a journey that promises a global uprising as we move ever toward that new creation that is the beloved community of God.

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

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

Pastor Rick  

Good to be back

Three candlesIt’s good to be back in the office. Thanks especially to Doug for all the good work he did in my absence. We are well served by his ministry. Thanks also to Jennifer who preached all three Sundays and to everyone who had a hand in keeping our operations running smoothly in my absence. And thanks to you all for making this sabbatical time available to me. It is invaluable and I pray it will bear fruit in our life and ministry together.

Though this was the last of three January intensives, I do have some work to do in order to meet the requirements for the diploma. I have 5 brief papers and 4 practice sessions to do between now and the middle of May. The time away was intense and meaningful, especially the interaction with the other students and faculty. This year’s focus was on systems and structures as well as contemporary issues. I learned a lot exploring how systems and structures help to sustain racism, domestic violence, hunger, gang violence, the “new Jim Crow” (mass incarceration) and powers that oppress. We have explored some of these issues as a congregation in the past and will continue to address them as we move forward.

I was very sorry to hear of that death of Marcus Borg last week. Though roundly criticized by many for his challenges to the tales of the “historical Jesus,” he was a deeply devoted practitioner of the faith who provided a source of hope and faith for many.

The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good). Rather, his teachings and behavior reflect an alternative social vision. Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself.

In those words, he asks to see that Jesus was a major opponent of domination systems. In The Heart of Christianity, his masterful statement of faith, Borg wrote, “The Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms us into more compassionate beings. The God of love and justice is the God of relationship and transformation…The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true — that God loves us already — and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”

These words speak to me a profoundly spiritual vision. What would the world be like if we committed ourselves to be “conscious of and intentional about” our relationship with God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being?   It seems to me that this practice would have transformative consequences for our lives as individuals as well as our life as a congregation.

Sunday we will consider Jesus as a teacher, looking at some of his own teaching as well literature from the Hebrew scripture in which he would have grounded. Always we are looking for what Jesus and these texts have to tell us about God’s way and God’s work in the world. Join me as we continue to make the road by walking. After worship this week we will have our annual meeting. Everyone who is interested in the ongoing life of FBCPA is encouraged to attend. See you Sunday at 10:00 AM

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

Pastor Rick

Who Is My Neighbor? (July 14, 2013)

sermons.fwWHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 14, 2013

Text:  Luke 10:25-37

Let us pray:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  Every observant Jew in Jesus’ hearing would have been familiar with these words.  They come directly from the Torah and were prayed twice daily.  To love God with one’s whole being was central to Jewish law.  Every other element of the law sprang from this great commandment.  So when the lawyer questions Jesus about eternal life, it’s not at all surprising to find he already knew the answer.

Some would argue that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus.  It certainly is not the first time on this long journey to Jerusalem that a religious authority has tried to trip him up.  But I’m not altogether certain.  I think it’s in the nature of lawyers to want to pin things down, to ask clarifying questions and to try to establish precedents that people can practice.  His question may be a test of Jesus’ knowledge or wisdom, but it could be that he really is looking for an answer. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Does that question have any ring of authenticity for you?  Have you ever found yourself wondering along with the lawyer?  Do you ever worry about the heavenly road and whether or not you’re on it?  I know we largely think of ourselves as too sophisticated to put questions in these terms.  But if you found yourself in this attorney’s shoes what would you ask Jesus?  What would you want to know – about his authenticity, his message, his leadership, the way he was walking, the choices he was making, the reign of God he kept promoting?  What must I do to secure my place in this in-breaking, life-transforming, reign of God?

Now in typical fashion of argumentation for the time and territory, Jesus turns the lawyer’s question back on him.  He answers the original question with a sharply pointed question of his own.  “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  Jesus knows this man is no dummy.  This lawyer is well-read, literate in the law, perfectly capable of answering his own question, if he stops to think.  Here we get Luke’s version of the Great Commandment, but it does not come from the lips of Jesus.  It comes from the one who has just challenged him.  Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor just as you love yourself.   The law, the way, the truth, the life – all are rooted and grounded in these words about the power of love.

I imagine the lawyer was a little embarrassed at being shown up by Jesus.  He engages in a little stuttering before he comes up with a face-saving follow-up question.  “And just who is my neighbor?”  Surely, he will either get Jesus to engage him on his own terms or he will catch Jesus short in his understanding of neighborliness.  But again, Jesus does not follow the lawyer’s lead.  He says, “Let me tell you a little story.”

The crowd is enrapt as they watch the volleys back and forth between the two.  They settle in to hear one of Jesus’ famous stories, the kind with a surprise ending that will surely put his challenger in his place.  I’m sure we could all tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory.  Along with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the most familiar of all Jesus’ stories.

Jesus himself will soon walk the steep, rugged road from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Even if it is not actually familiar to his hearers, they all know of its dangerous reputation.  I can imagine they might begin by wondering what this fool was doing traveling the road alone, unless he was on some urgent business that required his taking off by himself.

Now he lies bloody and beaten in the ditch robbed of all his resources, including his robe and tunic.  The listeners are conflicted.  They understand why the priest and Levite don’t stop.  The risk of being robbed themselves and the risk of ritual impurity were just too great.  Truth be told, most of them would not have stopped either.  They could think of a dozen reasons not to get involved.  But they’d also been around Jesus long enough to begin to understand how important compassion was to the reign of God.  They had a nagging feeling that Jesus believed the priest and Levite should have stopped.  They knew that, for Jesus, human need trumped rules and standard practice every time.

So what would the catch be, what was the punch line for this parable?  A Samaritan wanders onto the scene.  Well, surely this is a turn for the worse.  Everyone knew that a hated Samaritan could be up to no good.  See, we’ve heard this story so many times it’s tamed for us, but the first century Jews, listening to Jesus talk, had been carefully taught to hate Samaritans.  The ending, so familiar to us, would have been shocking to them.

That’s right.  It’s the Samaritan who shows compassion and extravagant generosity.  The lawyer is not the only one dumb-founded.  The whole crowd is astonished, speechless.  Jesus, looking the lawyer right in the eyes, asks one last question.  “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor…?”  Stuttering again, the lawyer cannot bring himself to say the word Samaritan…“The one who showed…mercy.”  Finally, the answer to that original question about eternal life, about residency in the reign of God:  “Go and do likewise.”

If we were to put ourselves into this scene today, how might the story unfold?  Who would we find in need and why?  Who would be likely to walk by on the other side and who would stop to help?  Where would you place yourself – lying in the ditch, hurrying by, taking time to lend assistance?  My guess is that each of us has had some experience of all three roles.  We’ve been down and out, hurting, in need of help.  We’ve been too busy, too frightened, too preoccupied to stop for a neighbor in need.  And there have been those moving, miraculous moments when our compassion has kicked in and we’ve stopped to help even when it was not perceived to be in our best interest.

Some would argue that it’s human nature to follow an instinct for self-preservation, to give one’s self over to caring only for one’s self and one’s own.  Michael Rogness reminds us that the shrinking world in which we live challenges our understanding of neighbor.  He says, “We are all ‘tribal’ by instinct and by habit. We are most comfortable with and usually care most about those like us. But now we live side-by-side with people of many different tribes” (Michael Rogness, Commentary on Luke 10:25-37, workingpreacher.org).  Whomever is on our personal “Samaritan” list are the ones for whom we are least likely to have time or energy.  No compassion for those folk; too hard to get inside their skin and see with their eyes.  It’s important to look after one’s own kind.  How subtly does racism, classism, sexism, homo-hatred, ablism creep in to erode our ability to love, to crush our capacity for compassion?

Gerald May argues that this very capacity for compassion, this awakening of the heart to loving and being loved is what distinguishes human beings from other animals (The Awakened Heart).  Marcus Borg says that the call to compassion is one of two key marks that distinguish Jesus’ ministry from all others (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time).  Anne Howard says of the parable, “There are two kinds of people in [this] story: those who see life with eyes of fear and the one who sees with eyes of love.”  She continues, “Jesus makes it very clear to the lawyer: there is really only one rule to the game: be a neighbor. Be the one who doesn’t count the cost, be the one who doesn’t measure the boundaries, be the one who doesn’t calculate the limits of kindness, be the one who sees” with eyes of love (Anne Howard, “Two Ways to See,” A Word in Time, July 8, 2013, beatitudessociety.org).

Compassion, love for neighbor, may not be part of our animal nature, but it is certainly central to that second nature, that higher self into which we can grow.  God has made us a little lower than the divine and crowned us with honor and glory (Psalm 8:5).  We are created and called to something beyond our base nature.  To give ourselves to God and neighbor is to commit ourselves to a life of love and compassion.  “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.  Go and practice compassion.  You already know the foundation – love of God and love of neighbor.  Go and live out what you see to be true.  Amen.