Prayer for Memorial Day

Maren C. Tirabassi

God, we come with Taps in our hearts
remembering those who have died for others,
soldiers, sailors, air corps, in this country and others,
remembering those who risk life for others,
coast guard, firefighter, law enforcement,
both near and far away,
remembering those who go forth
in emergency response, disaster relief,
and aid to victims of war,
remembering those who witness for justice
in the face of opposition,
and remembering our own losses –
some, fresh wounds,
some, long-familiar sadnesses.

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Visionary Living (2/21/2016)

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Text:  Genesis 28:10-19a

Have you ever set out on a long journey with a sense of urgency about reaching your destination as soon as possible? You drove farther than you had planned, pressing onward through the day. Suddenly you realized the sun had set, darkness was gathering all around you, and you were in the middle of nowhere. You could feel exhaustion inhabiting body, mind and spirit. With a sigh of relief, you settled for the first seedy motel you encountered and eventually settled into fitful sleep.

This where we find Jacob in today’s text. Admittedly, he’s a fugitive, fleeing his brother’s wrath, so the urgency of his journey is a life or death matter. And, of course, he’s walking in an area where there are no motels to be found. He’s gone as far as he can manage. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, cradling his head on the nearest stone and drifts into fitful sleep. Is it his exhaustion that troubles his slumber? the hard ground and his stone pillow? the uncertainty of his future? guilt for his past? It may well be that all this and more came into play.

Jacob’s is an important story in the history of the Hebrew people but he is not a very likable character. Some want to claim for him the archetypal role of the Trickster and there might be merit to that, but it is not hard to see that he is a scoundrel. You know the story, in conspiracy with his mother, Rebekah, he cheats his poor brother, Esau, of his birthright and his father’s blessing, both crucial to establishing his patriarchal rights as the first-born son. Whether or not Esau was a dolt or just naively trusting is irrelevant to the wickedness of his brother – and, yes, his own mother.

Esau has had enough. He’s out to get his brother. Thinking quickly, Rebekah hatches an elaborate plot for Jacob to get out of town. He should head across country to Haran, the land of her family and find a wife there among her people, lest he find himself wed to one of these awful Canaanite women as his brother was. Jacob doesn’t hesitate. He hits the road for Haran and here we find him, in the dead of the night, sleeping under the stars.

The vision he dreams, the theophany he encounters, lights up the night with angelic messengers descending and ascending a ladder or ramp that reaches all the way to heaven with God holding forth above it all. This was hardly what Jacob expected, a marked man, lying on the hard cold ground. Suddenly, the Holy One, the God of his forebears stands beside him, making promises in line with the covenant God had established with his ancestors – a great line of heirs who will bless the earth. Then, “I will be with you – yes, you, Jacob. I will keep you and I will bring you home.” Jacob can hardly believe his ears.

Is this amazing grace? It surely seems so to me. Jacob has certainly not earned any favor with God. In fact, this fleeing scoundrel has had little to do with God or religion at all. He has been totally wrapped in feathering his own nest. His very name means “striver,” “usurper” or “schemer.” His whole existence had been given over to getting ahead. When he speaks to old Isaac about the Holy One, he refers to Yahweh as “your God” (Genesis 27:20). Wouldn’t he be shocked by God’s showing up, even in his dreams.
But then there is that nagging question Barbara Brown Taylor raises. “By day I can outfox questions like these,” questions that challenge conscience, questions about how I treat my sisters and brothers, questions like “who am I?” and “what am I doing here?” questions that call forth the Holy One. Looking at her own daily routine, she describes,“…racing from one appointment to the next, answering e­mails with red exclamation points by them, taking the suddenly sick dog to the vet, rummaging through the freezer for something to thaw for supper.  By day, I am a servant of the urgent.  Nothing important has a chance with me…But in the middle of the night…I am a captive audience.”

In his own little world – self-absorbed and self-serving – Jacob has made neither time nor space for God. So, God comes to him, even if God has to wait till the middle of the night to capture Jacob’s attention. In learning to walk in the dark, we run the risk of encountering God in a deeper, more intense way than we ever imagined possible. Some days it‘s the only time we’re free of the clutter that threatens to bury us. It’s the only time God can get our attention – middle of the night, lying on the hard cold ground, open and vulnerable in our sleep and in our dreams.

The problem with Jacob, as it may be with us, he only skims the surface of the encounter. Visionary living remains beyond him. Walter Brueggemann writes that “The element in the narrative that surprises Jacob and seems incredible to us is…the wonder, mystery, and shock that this God should be present in such a decisive way to this exiled one. The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 242).

However, instead of falling on his knees in repentance and joy, Jacob actually tries to bargain with God. Verses 20-22 of Genesis 28 record this response from Jacob, “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.’”

He almost embraces what God is offering, but then, just to be certain, he adds that little “if” to his vow. “If you really do what you say you will, then I will take you as my God, worshipping and serving you.” Maybe it’s too much too soon. Maybe this is a far as Jacob can go in this encounter. There is no question that our spiritual journey is a life journey. There is always more to learn, more to let go of, more God to encounter and give ourselves to. Jacob is on more than one journey this night. He may be on his way to Haran but he is also on his way to heaven, as heaven draws nearer to earth. He is being drawn in the Spirit’s tether, lured by divine love into an ever closer walk with God. He has a lot yet to learn but he will never be the same, having seen this vision on this night.

Maren Tirabassi has been blogging prayer poems on the parable of the Prodigal Son for this Lenten season. They are both moving and challenging. Yesterday she posted this one, which I think gives insight into Jacob and, perhaps, to us.

Lenten reflection — recidivism
by Maren C. Tirabassi
February 20, 2016

How many times do we expect
the prodigal to return?

What about the fourth time,
when we are out of rings and robes
and the only sandals
in the house
already have feet in them?

What about the seventh time,
a little gray in the hair,
everyone’s hair,
and there is not so much
as fatted turnip left in the kitchen?

Our older child does not need
to say, “I told you so.”
It hovers in the air,
but still we are not left alone.

God, look the prodigal comes again.
We always lean our hearts
into that moment —
the one with the big hug,
and we believe every time …

the way you always do.

These are word of grace for the Prodigal, for Jacob, for you and me and all the world. Jacob is touched by his night vision but he is not healed. He will go on his merry way, creating more mischief before he comes to his senses and decides to head home. “Maybe,” he recalls, “there is something to that old covenant I made with God at Bethel. Maybe God really has been with me and kept me and now is calling me home. Maybe it’s time to pay up.”

You remember how the story ends – Jacob trembling at the Jabbok, having done everything he can imagine to cover his behind – emissaries and gifts to placate his brother, dividing up his goods and his entourage, hoping at least some will survive, Here he comes, bowing and scraping, as Esau approaches with 400 men. Here he stands before his brother,  his greatest fear for, lo, these many years. Now he is at Esau’s mercy. Will he live or die?

And, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound of brothers weeping in forgiveness and love. Visionary living. Oh Jacob saw the vision, he dreamed the dream that night at Bethel, but it took a life time for the vision to be realized, for the healing to occur, for the promise to be fulfilled. Learning to walk in the dark opens us to dreams and night musings, to visions of what might yet be when we trust God to walk with us, keep us close and lead us home. Amen.

Transforming Word (1/17/2016)

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

Sunday, January 17. 2016

Text: John 2:1-11

We heard John proclaim in the very beginning of his gospel that “the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). But what would it mean, what would it look like, feel like, taste like, to experience grace and truth in the flesh – in our flesh? In the first of his “signs,” John’s Jesus begins to address this question.

Jesus is three days into his ministry, just barely begun. Like a new head coach, he has been busy putting together his team of assistants. Andrew comes with his brother Simon Peter. Philip recruits his friend, Nathanael, whom Jesus has envisioned sitting under a fig tree. Nathanael is amazed at Jesus’ perception. Jesus assures him that, if he comes along, he will see yet “greater things.”

It doesn’t take long before these words come true. The whole entourage – Jesus, his disciples, even his mother – have been invited to a wedding in Nathanael’s home town. Now remember, a wedding in this time and territory was more than a rehearsal one day followed by the ceremony and reception the next. Weddings went on for a week and involved the entire village plus assorted friends and relatives from other places. For a couple to run out of wine before the week was over was not just a social faux-pas. It was shameful, casting a shadow over the families’ good names and jeopardizing the success of the marriage.

We can speculate about Mary as mother and matron. Perhaps she was a force with which to be reckoned. Tradition has certainly portrayed her as a figure of power and influence, on earth as well as in heaven. Practically, the text says she sees that the wine is disappearing much too rapidly. “Son, they are running out of wine.” “Well, what is that to us? What do you want me to do about it?”

These words seem harsh, disrespectful to our ears. That’s no way to talk to your mother. Maybe he’s trying to assert his independence. Maybe she is interfering with the delicate timing of his ministry, a timing determined in a realm beyond her understanding and above her pay grade. Maybe this is the beginning of his assertion that only those who serve God and God’s beloved community are to be counted among his true family. We will likely never know the full meaning of this response, so strange in our hearing.

The way the story plays out makes me thing of the son who says “no” to his father’s request for help, only to be found later doing what his father asked. Perhaps Mary is meant to be instrumental in moving her son to action. She is meant to help implement heaven’s plan. Remember it was not long ago that we read again the powerful words of the Magnificat and sang of “Dreaming Mary”:

And did she dream about a son? And did he speak, the angel one?
We only know God’s will was done in the son of Dreaming Mary.
Then she prayed, rejoicing in her savior. She taught him justice for the poor. She taught that kings oppressed no more
when she taught, that Dreaming Mary.

Anyway, Mary tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.” Not much time passes before they are serving the guests from a seemingly endless supply of fine wine, 120 to 180 gallons of the very best. The steward, the bride and groom, the guests, are all amazed and, of course, grateful. The party continues on to its joyous conclusion. Only the servants, Jesus and his entourage know what has really happened. I imagine they were all amazed in their own way.

Water into wine. Jesus’ first miracle, though John prefers to call it a sign. What a wonder! But it’s not as much the actual transformation of the water that’s important as it is the significance of the transforming word. In the beginning, the Word brings about creation. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4). Jesus speaks the word and the water is transformed to fine wine.

The transforming word is truth. There is another way. People live in fear that there is not enough to go around. Faith shrivels and religious practice becomes rote ritual, binding humankind instead of liberating. Compassion is little practiced. People focus on caring for me and mine. Difference is deemed dangerous and is met with suspicion, anger and hatred. People take up arms to protect their self-interest and destroy outsiders and the earth in the process.

The truth is that God never intended us to live like this and has been trying to convince us that this is so since blowing the breath of life into us and calling us very good. The truth is that the large jars filled with water for ritual cleansing could just as easily be filled with fine wine with which to celebrate the gifts of God’s goodness and the abundance of life in the Beloved Community.

Deborah Guy writes, “Sometimes, I am so focused on what I do not have that I cannot see God’s gifts. God offers me a feast. Do I eat the bounty offered? Do I drink from the river of pure joy? Where is the life and light in my own life? Do I know God and God’s faithful love? Is my heart right? Do I allow God to extend righteousness to me? (January 13, 2016, The transforming word of truth sets us free from all that binds us so that we can live and work with the Word to fulfill God’s intention that all creation be wrapped up in a Beloved Community, blessed and sustained by God’s steadfast love.

The transforming word is grace. It is the amazing grace of God’s steadfast love for us, whatever our limitations and foibles. The word is grace that invites us to party, to celebrate the wonder and goodness of creation, to recognize that love is the real power in the universe, the only power that matters in the end. To love God with one’s whole being and to love creation as we love ourselves can only result in transformation of all. It is grace that allows love to lead the way, to shape our lives, to help us see that we are welcomed “just as we are.”

The transforming word is Jesus, the Christ. The Word became flesh. God took on human form. Jesus embodied the cosmic Christ, powerful presence from before the beginning of time, and lived among us. Jesus is the miracle, Jesus becomes the sign that leads us to God’s Beloved Community. In his life and work, in his teaching and his practice, in his compassion and his deep connection to the Holy One, he demonstrates the possibilities of transformation for all of us.

Lately I have been taken with the transforming possibilities contained in the words of liturgist and poet, Maren Tirabassi. Let’s give her the last word today as we consider her “Reflection on John 2”:



Maren C. Tirabassi

Of course, marriage is a miracle,
like every tender, trusting, tricky
relationship between people.

It’s a miracle, given the stress
from wedding planner to dementia,
that we ever hold on
to love or respect
or the ability to cope
with each other’s relatives.

The truth in John’s pragmatic descent
from philosophical heights
to pre-toast nightmare
is that in every relationship,
we run out of something –

patience or courage or energy,
health or money or parenting skills,
physical attractiveness,
or the ability to appreciate humor,
financial trustworthiness
or the willingness to make breakfast in bed,
watch boring television,
drive aunt Susan to the tenth doctor,
accompany the kid to traffic court –
or just joy.

Everybody runs out of something, sometime.
And then we recognize
Word-boy is in the miracle business.
Jesus can transform things –
water into wine,
wine into poured-out love,
our days of fear, loss, failure, anxiety,
into a morning more healthy, more whole.

So the first miracle
is not walking on water
but making it a party,
and here comes the pun –
it works because we party-cipate.

That couple owned the clay jars;
those attendants poured;
the steward did the taste-test,
which was probably not so much
swirl and sniff
as supermarket sample.

No hocus-pocus-vintage in the smokus –
Jesus transformed something
that was already there –
something that hadn’t run out –
like love or respect or caring,
memories of counting new baby toes,
or holding one another’s hands
side by side at a grave –
into enough, into abundance.

Of course, they did run out of water
for getting clean –
and had to settle for welcoming
all those dirty guests,

but that’s where we come in –
for we’re the wedding crashers here.

(Maren C. Tirabassi, 1-13-2016,

May the transforming word come to our lives and our community, bringing joy and making all things new. Amen.