On Being God’s Person (7/17/2016)

Earth in your handsA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Micah 6:1-8; 1 Peter 4:7-11

What does God require? Well, really, who cares? We’re free, independent people, right? We get to live our own lives however we please. What does God have to do with it?

“Who cares?” might be the cynical response of one who finds the “God question” irrelevant and believes he is on his own in this world. Even if there is a god, where is he? What has he done for me lately, let alone what has he done for this poor old world? Looking at the state of the world today, even people of faith may question God’s presence, let alone God’s relevance.

To ask the question, “What does God require?” And to care about the answer, of necessity, means that there is a relationship with God on which to ground the concern. If I am not God’s person, if we are not God’s people, then concern for God’s requirements is meaningless. I suppose I am stating, maybe overstating, the obvious, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded that, for the most part, we gather here week after week because we are or want to be God’s people. And if that’s true, what God requires of us is critical, perhaps even a life and death matter. Continue reading On Being God’s Person (7/17/2016)

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Peace Now! (5/29/16)

candle and globeA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 29, 2016

Text: Micah 4:1-5; Luke 6:26-37; Romans 12:9-21 (The Message)

Are you tired of talking about peace? It’s been a month now. Are we any closer to achieving peace than we were when we started? People are still warring on a variety of fronts. Ancient enmity keeps people glaring at each other across chasms of hatred or pretending they are safe behind walls that separate. Sexism, homo-hated, and racism are all still rampant. The gulf widens daily between the haves and have nots. People are fed up with governments atrophied over the silliest self-absorption of special interest groups and childish grabs for power by politicians of every persuasion.

We have looked at visions of the Holy Mountain and the Beloved Community where peace is promised. We have heard Jesus and Paul and the prophets proclaim peace as a way of life. We have considered the lives of those who have committed themselves to peacemaking. But it is also true that we aren’t there yet, that we haven’t lived up to our high calling, that we haven’t really given ourselves to peacemaking. At least, it doesn’t appear that much, if anything, has changed as we come to the fifth Sunday in a row in which we’ve tried to say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

It makes me think of Jeremiah, that prophet of weeping and woe, who stands in the city square and cries out, “Thus says God of hosts: Glean thoroughly as a vine the remnant of Israel; like a grape-gatherer, pass your hand again over its branches. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen. The word of God is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it. But I am full of the wrath of God; I am weary of holding it in. Pour it out on the children in the street, and on the gatherings of young men as well; both husband and wife shall be taken, the old folk and the very aged. Their houses shall be turned over to others, their fields and wives together; for I will stretch out my hand against the inhabitants of the land, says God. For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore, they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says God. Thus says God: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” Also I raised up sentinels for you: “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” But they said, “We will not give heed” (Jeremiah 6:9-17).

Well there’s a gloomy picture from the passionate prophet. I don’t mean to draw a direct parallel between our own situation and Jeremiah’s words to an ancient people threatened with imminent assault from a great power, destruction of their land and way of life and exile to a strange place. For one thing, we are situated in the midst of the most powerful nation on earth. Nor do we live in a theocracy in which we believe that God directly pulls the strings that determine our fate or the fate of the world. Oh, I know we make a nominal claim to being a Christian nation, but, really, do we live our lives or conduct the affairs of state as if we were in covenant with God? This is not the Promised Land nor do we inhabit the shining city set on a hill.

Still there is truth for us in this ancient word. When peace and justice are discussed, how many close their ears, refusing to listen? How often is God’s word of compassion and care, of steadfast love and mercy scorned? It sounds as if Jeremiah is “mad as hell” and “not going to take it anymore.” Do we ever feel like that? Whether it’s God’s wrath or Jeremiah’s own disgust with his recalcitrant people, the threats are ominous. Neither the young nor the old is spared; nor is their property.

What’s the problem as the prophet sees it? “… from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.” Am I wrong in thinking Jeremiah’s indictment might speak to us, might say something about us, especially in the current election cycle?

You know I’m not going to argue that God is out to get us or that God wants to punish us for our wickedness. That may be Jeremiah’s view but I believe that the tragedies of daily life are largely our own doing. If there is “punishment,” it will be the inevitable consequence of the choices we make. In time we will reap what we sow. I think the prophet is on to something when he says, “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” The question is whether or not we will heed the warning walk in God’s good way.

OK, I will confess that I’m playing a bit of a game here. I didn’t really expect much change in a month’s worth of focusing on peace. Maybe the problem is I should have expected more. But we’ve made a start and, as with last month’s focus on love of the earth and creation care, this is not the last time we will consider peace. I do believe that the practice of peacemaking is fundamental to our Christian identity, especially when we think of peace as shalom, which includes harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being.

In a book entitled, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, Lisa Sharon Harper writes, “Shalom is what God declared. Shalom is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Shalom is when all people have enough. It’s when families are healed. It’s when churches, schools, and public policies protect human dignity. Shalom is when the image of God is recognized in every single human. Shalom is our calling as followers of Jesus’ gospel. It is the vision God set forth in the Garden and the restoration God desires for every relationship” (Quoted by Linda Bergeon in the FCBC Newsletter, May 26, 2016). That does sound like good news if we could just play our part in making it real.

God’s good way, the way of shalom – do we throw up our hands in frustration and despair because it is not current reality or do we give ourselves more ardently to making peace now? All of our readings from this morning lead toward peace, the shalom of God’s Beloved Community. Do we believe it is possible or do we cry “peace, peace when there is no peace” and thereby thwart healing the wounds of God’s people and all creation?

Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Micah pauses in the midst of his hard word to envision a world in which instruments of war will be transformed to tools for peace and people will study war no more, a time in which every single human being, no exception, will be free to sit under their own vine and fig tree, utterly unafraid.

Jesus encourages his followers to “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you.” The irony of this wisdom is that it is impossible to hold as enemy another whom you hold in love. As the poet, Emily Dickinson, with her own wisdom, wrote:

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love, but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

“The little toil of love…was large enough…” Could we make the same claim for ourselves? “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it,” Paul says to the church in Rome. There is the challenge. How do we ensure that love lives at the center of who we are? The first week Jieun Lee played her violin for us and I shared that she was on her way to play at Carnegie Hall, I told that joke about how one gets to Carnegie Hall. When the young tourist asks the old musician how to get to Carnegie Hall, the response is “Practice!” I know it’s a tired old joke, but isn’t there also wisdom in it? How do you establish love at the center of who you are?  How do you learn to love your enemy and do good to those who hate you? How do you internalize the Golden Rule? Practice, friends, practice. I know of no other way. And isn’t that a sort of peace now? Practice it as best you can. Live as if it was really so in your daily life.

Paul exhorts the Roman church to just such practice. “Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.  Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Holy One, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.  Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.  Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do… if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise your enemy with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.” “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

I can hear you. Honestly, I can hear me. This is hard work. I don’t know if I can live into it, loving from the center of my being and practicing the things that make for peace. The issues of peace and justice are so much larger than I. I don’t even know where to begin. Well, we can start with the ballot we cast next Tuesday and ask ourselves to be cognizant of concerns for peace and justice, compassion and love, as we mark our ballots. We might even pray over them. We can lobby our leaders for peace now and work to elect leaders who are committed to peace and justice. Then we can practice the things that make for peace in our lives now – at home, at school, at work, at play, as we walk the streets and encounter every aspect of God’s creation. We really can.

I want to close by sharing a little story from our friend Greg Griffey. It is both simple and counterintuitive, unless you’re actively trying to let love flow from the center of your being and practice the things that make for peace. Greg writes:

My neighbor in the waiting area at Bubbles Car Wash: “Donald Trump will become President because he’s not afraid to say what’s in his mind! People want that!”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Neighbor: “Like when he called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas. He rises above all that political correctness bull that we’re being fed and calls it like he sees it!”

Me: “It feels to me that name calling relieves us from the vulnerability of hard conversations by keeping us ‘above’ the other person.

Neighbor: “I guess you’re a politically correct liberal.”

Me: “I try to be kind and understanding of others, including you. Tell me more about your hopes for our country.”

Neighbor: “I want my kids to be safe and have opportunities.”

Me: “You love your kids.”

Neighbor: “Yep! And you?”

Me: “I don’t have kids, but I have a husband and a mom and dad back home. I worry about them every day. I want them to be safe and to have opportunities, too.”

Neighbor: “Looks like we have something in common.”

Me: “We both love our families and we’ve both judged each other today.”

Neighbor: “I guess you like Bernie?”

Me: “I like Bernie. I also believe that real hope doesn’t come from Bernie. It comes from you and me when we can enter into real relationship and know that we each speak from a place of integrity.”

Car Attendant: “Toyota Yaris!”

Me: “That’s my car. I’m Greg, by the way.”

Neighbor: “I’m David. Pleased to meet you, Greg.”

Me: “Pleased to meet you, too, David. Best to your kids!”

We shake hands. I slip the attendant a tip and wonder about his hopes, too. Then I wonder how he affords to live in the Bay Area on a car wash attendant’s wage. I get in my car and drive off, haunted by it all.

There are many places where this interchange might have taken a different, more hostile turn. Greg took a chance, made himself vulnerable, and something miraculous happened. A small miracle, yes, but a miracle none the less – a miracle of shalom, a miracle of peace-making. I’m not nominating Greg for sainthood just yet, but how often might we make this sort of difference in a simple yet challenging human interaction? “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Find shalom, well-being for your loved ones and your neighbors and, yes, your enemies. Peace now. Is it possible? You tell me. Amen.

Note from Pastor Rick (5/25/2016)

love quiltThanks to Geoff Browning, UCCM campus minister, for leading our Adult Spiritual Formation last Sunday.  It was good to brought up to date on UCCM program and activities, including their trip to Nicaragua last March. Both Pastor Gregory and Charlotte Jackson are currently serving on the UCCM board.

I had a good time as respondent to the annual Drexler Lecture at the American Baptist Seminary of the West last week. I got to provide transportation for the speaker, J. Brent Walker, the retiring Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. It was great to get hear Brent’s update from the BJC and the state of religious liberty in the USA, and to get better acquainted with this fine champion of Baptist principles. Then, on Saturday I attended the ABSW commencement ceremony at the historic First Baptist Church of Oakland. The speaker was my old friend, Margaret Cowden, former treasurer of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. I enjoyed seeing her and also watching my students from last spring receive their diplomas and awards.

Worship this week will focus on “Peace Now”. The texts from Micah, Luke and Romans are all familiar passages pertaining to peace. Micah urges us to study war no more. In Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus tells us we must love our enemies. Paul, writing to the church at Rome, says, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Each text treats the challenges and rewards of committing ourselves to making peace now. We’ll close the service by singing, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

In Adult Spiritual Formation we will consider a new book by Dan Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program. I heard Dan interviewed on public radio and was impressed with his understanding and vision. The book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts, is a thoughtful and practical guide to helping us find harmony and reconciliation, whether at home, church or on the global stage.

Join us for these opportunities Sunday, starting at 10:00 AM. Invite your family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, acquaintances and strangers to join us as we explore the things that make for peace.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

 

More Love (February 9, 2014)

CarnivalMORE LOVE
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 9, 2014

Text: Isaiah 58; 1 Corinthians 13

When I was a senior in high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical. That year we performed, “Carnival,” that small but delightful show that follows the lives of an eccentric group of performers and workers in a run-down traveling circus known as “The Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris.” Paul is a former ballet dancer, now crippled and reduced to running the puppet show for the circus. He speaks his words of ironic humor, cynicism and bitterness through his hand puppets, Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Marguerite and Reynardo, the Fox. The female lead is a simple, orphan girl who wanders into the carnival looking for work. One male character after another seeks to seduce the naïve young woman until she finally falls victim to Paul’s angry rejection and bitter cruelty. Of course, the truth is that Paul is falling in love with her, a love that is eventually acknowledged and they all live happily ever after in best of Broadway fashion. The moral of the musical is the redemptive power of love. The show opens and closes with the charming little song, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Do you remember it?

Love makes the world go ‘round, love makes the world go ‘round
Somebody soon will live you, if no one loves you now.
High in some silent sky loves sings a silver song
Making the world whirl softly
Love makes the world go ‘round.

Now you can argue that this is a rather sentimental view of love. It is, after all, an American musical, based on a gentle French tale in which the basic plot line is “love conquers all.” And if today’s scripture texts are any indication, the song offers an insufficient word about love. Yet, who can ever speak with final authority on the subject. Love is as broad and deep as human knowing. There is more love than we will ever know. Ultimately, loves flows from God and back to God, carrying us along on its mighty stream. Though the song is simple, the sentiment can be profound. What if it is indeed true that love makes the world go ‘round? Would we not want to immerse ourselves in such love and let it bear us to our ultimate destination in the very heart of God?

In the musical, Paul is angry and bitter, seething at what has been unfairly taken from him. Ironically he is self-absorbed with his self-hatred. The innocent Lili holds up a mirror of affectionate delight in the world all around that draws him out of his shell and transforms his life. What she shows him is more love than he can show himself, in fact, more love than he has ever known – love and delight in his being, not at all unlike the love and delight that God holds for us, indeed for all creation.

The people who had returned from exile to the sad ruins of Jerusalem were not so unlike Paul, the puppeteer. All they could see was what they had lost. Perhaps they too were bitter and cynical. We know that they held a narrow, inward-looking view of their life as a people. They were pretty self-absorbed in religious practice that they believed would save them. The trouble was it wasn’t working. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They cry out to God, whose absence they are feeling all too keenly. “Oh Lord, nobody loves us now!”

Isaiah, speaking for God, is neither naïve nor gentle in his response. “It’s time to wake up folks. Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” My guess is that most of us are not too big on fasting as a religious practice, so maybe you can name for yourself a practice that gets in the way of following faithfully God’s will for your life. Marvin McMickle, former pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland and now president of Colgate Rochester Divinity School suggests that “There are many people for whom piety is the be-all and end-all of true religion. They keep an accurate count of the hours they spend in church, in choir rehearsal, in a board meeting, in private prayer, in Bible study, and in attendance at various other church events. That involvement in church life seems to them to be a sufficient investment in a relationship with God.”

But our practices of piety are not sufficient. We can always use more light and more love. In fact, the prophets proclaim that God gets tired of rote religious practice and turns away from rituals ungrounded in love. Last week’s lectionary readings included these words from Micah, “’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”(Micah 6:6-8).

And Amos thunders, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). The point is, we think we can come to God with our familiar religious practices and that will be sufficient to sustain God’s favor. Fasting, sacrifice, celebrations, solemn assemblies, even our songs, our worship, are not enough in themselves to link us to God.

William Sloane Coffin tells us in our Words of Preparation that “’God is love,’ as Scripture says, and that means the revelation is in relationship. ‘God is love’ means God is known devotionally, not dogmatically. ‘God is love’ does not clear up old mysteries; it discloses new mystery. ‘God is love’ is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender. Faith is being grasped by the power of love.” This, in fact, is the love that makes the world go ‘round and it is not sentimental at all.

It seemed wrong to talk about more love and not at least remind ourselves of the Apostle Paul’s great hymn to love in his first letter to the church at Corinth. As with the Beatitudes from last week I am not going to try to unpack this familiar text this morning. Suffice it to say that these words are not the sentimental litany we make of them at weddings and other celebrations. As one scholar suggests, here we find love as a verb, love in action, love redeeming lives and transforming the world. Here we find that love is more than we may ever wrap our minds around. If Coffin is right, it “is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender.”

At the same time hear this, in that surrender we may be drawn into a powerful stream of justice and righteousness, of compassion and care, of mercy and steadfast love, for so it is with God. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Paul all tell us that reaching for more love will have consequences for how we live our lives, how we relate to one another and all of God’s creation. Love asks, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”; “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…”; to “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”; to be patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, to not insist on [our] own way, or be irritable or resentful, rejoicing not in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things – this is the love that makes the world go ‘round. When we ask for more love, this is what we are asking for. And when God calls us into relationship this is what God desires of us.

As I said last week, I believe there are more light-filled days ahead for our congregation if that is our desire and if we are willing to risk walking into God’s light. In the same way, I believe that God has more love for us, more than we can ever receive or hold, if we are willing to surrender ourselves to that everflowing stream. This is the “new mystery” that “’God is love’…discloses.” Will we give ourselves to the mystery? Will we surrender to this truth even though we may never master it? Can we trust that love really does make the world go ‘round? And will we then allow God to ask more love of us? In our living, in our dying, and in our renewal, more love, O God, more love.

Amen.