The Road to Freedom (November 2, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Texts: Exodus 1:1-14; 3:1-15; John 8:1-11; Galatians 5:1, 13-23 (The Message)

 

1Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.

13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?

16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.

22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

 

Once again our McLaren resource has gifted us with a rich selection of texts. We can choose among the stories of Moses and how he came to lead his people to liberty or John’s account of the woman caught in adultery or Paul’s riff on freedom as he tries to straighten out the good folks of First Church, Galatia. All of this is gathered under the theme of “Freedom!” The challenge is that each of these texts approaches freedom from a different perspective.

We considered the call of Moses not long ago, the story of the burning bush, Moses’ reluctance to go and God’s promise to go with him to set God’s people free. McLaren writes that this story “makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims. God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God does not uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future may come” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 39). Once again, McLaren shows us how the God of Israel is distinguished from other gods of the ancient world who would have been firmly on the side of the ruling classes. Shockingly good news! The living God, the great God of the universe, is for the oppressed and downtrodden. God hears the cries of those who are bound by chains of every sort.

The Moses story is about freedom on a grand scale. It’s about the liberation of a entire people, a people with whom God has covenanted to be their God as they will be God’s people. This is a tale of God’s desire that these people live together with one another and with God in peace, harmony and well-being. It holds a promise of the restoration of the rich, abundant life that God laid out in creation. This story has held hope for enslaved people in all generations, from the slaves of the ancient Greco-Roman world to the African slaves brought to US shores, from contemporary structures of apartheid to the poor, downtrodden people of slums and barrios everywhere. The song that begins, “Let my people go,” ends with the refrain, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty. I’m free at last!”

Still, as we know only too well, the road to freedom is long and arduous. The Children of Israel go grumbling and complaining, dragging their feet through forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God may desire that God’s people live free, but we make it difficult to find fulfillment of the promise. Take the story of the woman caught in adultery. Her wrong-doing, her sin is not in question here. She is guilty and she knows it and she feels it. The point of the story is the self-righteous judgment of the community that wants to keep her bound to her guilt rather than offer her the liberation of forgiveness and restoration. The great irony is that the community’s self-righteous judgment has them tied up knots as well. They are bound to the letter of an ancient law that serves neither the woman nor the community.

Jesus sees through the hypocrisy and offers freedom to all. But the road to freedom is challenging. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Well, well, that’s not exactly what they were expecting from the teacher. He has turned their blood lust back on themselves. I wonder if, after they have slunk away and spent some time considering his words, they didn’t find some freedom in Jesus’ challenge. Humbling, yes, but liberating as well. “You mean it’s enough to take care of the log in my own eye without worrying about the speck in my neighbor’s eye?” Can you feel the release in not having to carry the burden of another’s sin and guilt along with your own? And, in the process, are we not freed to work together then for the welfare of the whole community? As Richard Hays writes, “freedom in Christ manifests itself through the formation of concrete communities where the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender are overcome in communion at the one table” (Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI, p. 310).

“For freedom Christ has set you free.” What a word of hope and promise! Paul is writing to a congregation caught between some who insist on adherence to the law, to certain religious rules and practices in order to secure God’s favor, and those who insist that they are free of any such rules and practice. It is not unlike the situation with the community that comes to Jesus ready to stone their neighbor. Keep the rules or you’re headed for hell. But that sort of judgment is beyond our pay grade and, in fact, Jesus has liberated us from such a burden.

Remember how Jesus summarized the law – love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself, the irony being that he drew these mandates directly from the ancient texts. This is a liberating word, easy to remember, enough to focus the practice of a life time. Love God, love neighbor.

In his teaching on freedom, Paul reinforces this liberating word, “…everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Then, in case they don’t get the full import, he adds a timely warning, “If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”

Just to be clear, he reminds the members of First Church, Galatia, that the freedom he’s talking about is not license. The freedom we find in Christ is freedom that comes with responsibility. As a reminder of our exploration of “Rivalry and Reconciliation,” Elisabeth Johnson tells us that “Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and destroys life in community” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010,” workingpreacher.org).

We’re not free to do whatever we want, certainly not without consequences. Paul says the road to freedom leads to a crucial fork. If you take the fork toward getting your own way all the time, you’ll find yourself wandering through “…repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

The other fork leads to the freedom to serve, the freedom to care for one another and the community, the freedom to love as we are loved. It’s not cheap freedom. It comes at a price, but is well worth it in the end. Here we find ourselves immersed in “…things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity…a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people…involve[ment] in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, [the ability] to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

Well, there you go, the road to freedom. Walking this road has implications for people and nations and creation itself. It also has implications for you and me and First Baptist, Palo Alto. When we come to that crucial juncture in the road which route will we take, the one to self-interest, self-righteous and selfishness or the one to love for God and neighbor and ultimate freedom? “It’s a long road to freedom, awinding steep and high, but when you walk in love with the wind on your wing and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the miles fly by.” Amen.

Bare Feet and Burning Bushes (August 31, 2014)

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15

There was a lot on Moses’ mind as he followed the flocks across the Sinai Peninsula, finding food and water where they could. One could say he was distracted as looked back over the way he had come – growing up in Pharaoh’s court, his curious feelings for the Hebrew people, both the ones who had helped raise him and those he saw in hard labor for the Egyptians. He wasn’t really sure how he fit in anywhere. Then there was the day he had struck out in rage, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He didn’t know exactly what had made him so angry. It all just seemed so wrong.

He had been forced to flee for his life, leaving behind all the wealth and privilege to which he had been accustomed. He found his way to the tiny land of Midian, where its priest had taken him in, giving him refuge. In time he had made an uneasy peace with this arrangement, eventually marrying the man’s daughter and becoming a part of his family. Now his responsibility was to tend the flocks of Jethro, a task for which his royal friends and family back in Egypt would have disdained and ridiculed him. “Oh look, the mighty Moses is a shepherd. He’s not such hot stuff now, is he? How far can a man fall? He’s living in the bottom of the barrel.”

It wasn’t that he minded the work so much. It gave him a secure role in the world and often kept his mind from wandering, but for several days now they had been moving farther and farther from Midian. Suddenly he was aware that he was in territory he’d never traveled before. He looked up and looming before him was a mountain with which he was unfamiliar. As he began to look around more carefully, trying to get his bearings, he saw something in the distance that caught his eye. It appeared to be a fire. He decided to check it out.

As he got closer, he could see a thornbush that seemed to be aflame and yet its leaves and branches were not actually burning. That is, they appeared to be unscathed by the fire. He moved in to get a better look. As he got very near, he was sure he heard a crack of thunder. Maybe the bush had been struck by lightning and lit ablaze. Only it was a hot, dry day without a cloud in the sky.

Again the thunderous sound, only this time, he thought he could make out words, like his name was being called. “Moses, Moses.” What could it be? Was there someone in distress in or around the burning bush? But how could they know his name? Again, the sound. This time he was certain it was his name. “Moses, Moses.” There was an urgency to the call. He had to respond, “Here I am.”

Thus did Moses encounter the living God. Lost, distracted, full of the challenges of his own life, God found him where he was and called to him. I suppose in his troubled self absorption, he might have wandered by and missed the whole experience. Barbara Lundblad writes, “I…know, and perhaps you do, too, if we’re honest with each other, that we have an almost endless capacity to keep walking. Schedules can do it. We’re terribly busy. We need to get someplace, no time to stop, we’ll come back later. Rationality can keep us from turning aside: we don’t believe in visions. Belief in an all-sufficient, autonomous God can keep us from stopping: God so totally other that any earthly sign could only be our own psychic illusion. There are plenty of sound reasons to keep on walking” (Barbara Lundblad, “Turning Aside,” March 5, 2000, csec.org). He also might have seen the flames and fled in fear as far and as fast as he could.

Still, there is plenty of evidence that when God comes looking for us, God will find a way to get our attention. Fortunately Moses’ native curiosity led him to “turn aside and look at this great sight.” Some would say that whatever path we take, there is something in each of us that longs for an encounter with the living God. We may be aware. It might be near the surface and a conscious quest or it may linger deep within us, out of consciousness, nagging at us indirectly. At any rate, Moses’ journey brings him to the foot of the holy mountain and here God descends to meet him in the midst of his distracted wandering. God calls him by name. God knows him better than he knows himself.

“That’s close enough, Moses. Take off your sandals. This is holy ground.” Have you ever tried to walk barefoot across burning sand? Hopping from one foot to the other, you look for shade or water or covering that will cool and protect your feet, but Moses removes his sandals and kneels in the presence of the living God. Overcome by the encounter, he covers his face, afraid to look directly at what blazes before him. There is an inherent humility that comes with such a sacred encounter.

My friend, LeAnn, used to remove her shoes to preach. She felt that standing in the pulpit was holy ground and removing her shoes was a meaningful, humbling symbol for her. There is something powerful in removing whatever comes between us and the sacred. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins observes,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

So much gets between us and the grandeur of God, the sacred wonders of creation, and we trudge on unaware of what is possible all around us. As Anathea Portier-Young puts it, “…in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.”

Bare feet and burning bushes become markers of an encounter with the Holy One, the Living God. Such an encounter shakes us up, changes our lives, transforms us. It becomes source for our seeing, our speaking, our calling. The encounter is with the very ground our being and all being.

Portier-Young continues, “When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands” (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15, August 31, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).

Could such an experience be available for us? Will we turn aside to see this great sight, this evidence of the sacredness of Creation? Will the time come when you and I find true ground and know where we stand? Where in your own journey have you been invited to remove whatever keeps you from digging your toes into sacred soil, from rooting and grounding yourself in it, from accepting the claim that the Living God makes on you?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning advised us that

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware…
(from “Aurora Leigh”)

God is ever present and always calling us, luring us, longing for us to meet God in holy encounter, to see and embrace all of heaven, all of the sacred that surrounds us and for which we share God’s loving care. We will not each have the same experience Moses had. Moses was unique – as is each of us. God had a task for him, a monumental task, the liberation of an entire population from oppression and slavery.

God may not challenge you or I to such a grand enterprise. But God calls each one of us – “Mary, Mary. Lois, Lois. Thelma. Thelma. Lynn, Lynn. Alan, Alan. Rick, Rick. I have work for you. There’s a place for you, a calling for you, a task for you.” How will we respond, you and I? I imagine we might be as reluctant as Moses. We may offer as many excuses or more. We’ll try to talk God out of it. “Why don’t you choose someone else who is younger, better qualified, less busy, not as burdened with obligations, more faithful, more spiritual, a better person, a better Christian?”

Well here are the universal words of assurance I take from this text. In the midst of voicing his protest and making his excuses, God says, “I will be with you…” The promise is that we will not be alone; that God goes with us; that whatever the work to which God calls us peacemaking, justice work, liberation activity, compassion for others, care for the earth, it is shared work. Bare feet and burning bushes, our journeys and our encounters, our working and our living, when grounded in God, will bring us again and again to worship on God’s holy mountain. May it be so. Amen.

 

You Want to Live? (February 16, 2014)

sermonsMORE LIFE

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 16, 2014

 Text: Deuteronomy 30:11-20

 Sunrise by Mary Oliver

You can
die for it—an idea, or the world. People
have done so, brilliantly, letting
their small bodies be bound
to the stake, creating
an unforgettable
fury of light. But
this morning, climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
of China, and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun
blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many! What is my name? What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter fire.”

This Ancient Word is an old story – it’s an interesting story but it’s not really our story, is it?  Here we have the children of Israel, gathered on the Jordan’s bank, looking over into the land of promise.  They’ve gathered to hear the last words of their leader, Moses.  He has led them through 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness while they grumbled and complained, often looking longingly back to Egypt, wondering if they would ever come to this new place that God and Moses have promised them.  Now we find them on the verge of realizing the promise.  Their old leader will not join them as the promise is fulfilled.  They will journey forward without him.  He has hard words of warning for them as they move ahead.  If they fail to journey with God, they will journey alone and the consequences will be disastrous.

But in the comfort our lives, settled already in a land of promises fulfilled, experiencing wonders and blessings beyond our imagining, this is not our story.  We’ve got it made.  We’ve already arrived, haven’t we?  What more could we want or expect?

The way I tell the story, my father had a photographic memory.  As a preacher, he would study all week, reading and reflecting on his text; then on Sunday morning, he would get up early, scribble six words on the back of an envelope, enter the pulpit and preach for thirty-five minutes, a well-thought out, well-reasoned and eloquent sermon.  That is not my story.  I approach preaching differently, and I know those of you who already think my sermons are too long are glad that I don’t preach for thirty-five minutes.

When I was in Granville, the little town celebrated its 200 anniversary.  Founded in 1805 by pioneers who headed west from Granville, Massachusetts, Granville, Ohio, felt in many ways like a New England village.  At First Baptist Church, we decided we would do a historical service to celebrate the anniversary.  It was an historical mish-mash but we had a good time remembering the long legacy of the village and the church.  I wore a frock coat and top hat.  We sang gospel songs and hymns from the mid 19th century and I “preached” a sermon written by Charles Baldwin, who was the congregation’s longest tenured pastor, serving for over 35 years.

The reason I could use one of Reverend Baldwin’s sermons was that the entire collection of handwritten manuscripts had been bequeathed to the archives of the village historical society.  I was granted access to those manuscripts and spent some time looking through them.  The obvious problems were that the language, style and theology were quite dated, not exactly what Granville’s current congregation would want to hear.  Also, Reverend Baldwin’s sermons were pages and pages long, typically lasting 45 minutes or more.  The people in Granville in 2005 were no more interested in listening to me preach that long than you are.  I finally found a manuscript that was adaptable and I edited it to an appropriate length for the day and age.  It was good compromise for an occasion of historical remembrance, but Reverend Baldwin’s story was not mine, nor did his sermon speak directly to his old congregation 125 years after he first preached it.

What’s the point of these digressions?  Nothing profound, I guess, except this morning’s scripture comes at the end of what some scholars call a very long sermon.  This is Moses’s farewell exhortation of his people and it covers the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  I’m quite sure you would not be comfortable listening to me proclaim the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  Maybe, if Moses himself was here, we might tolerate it.  But it’s really not our style nor is it our story.  Or is it?  Is there more life in this ancient tale than appears on the surface?

The verses we read this morning are the final words of Moses’s sermon, the climax that includes the invitation.  And, by the way, both my father and Reverend Baldwin would have concluded their sermons with such a climax and invitation to make a critical choice.  They would have urged a decision for discipleship, for following God’s way by following Jesus Christ.  We’re not comfortable with that sort of invitation these days.  Many of us are not comfortable with forced choices of any sort.  We don’t so much like, “It’s this or that.  You must choose; now is the moment of decision.”  We see life as much more nuanced and ambiguous.  We find ourselves living with the questions.  Very often there are no clear or easy answers.  So this is not our story, is it?

But perhaps there are moments in our lives when we need to step out in space and make a choice.  Might there be points at which we decide, placing our trust in God and God’s promises?  We may not be moving toward a literal land of promise but is there a symbolic land of promise for us, a place, a time, a state in which we would know more light, more love, more life if we were to make a clear choice, if we were to answer “yes”?  Brian Jones writes of our ancient word that “The choice is laid out bluntly. It is yes or no. The options presented do not include ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘I’ll give it a try.’”  Quoting from Star Wars, he reminds us, “As Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker who has half-heartedly promised to ‘try’ to do as Yoda asks, ‘No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try’” (Brian C. Jones, “Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20,” 9-18-2013, workingpreacher.org).

Moses and his people had been wandering together for 40 years.  They had been freed from captivity in Egypt but they had not found the place God had for them.  Now it was in sight, so close they could smell it across the river, but, before they entered, Moses had a last word for them.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”  There it was all laid out before them.  Sometimes God does put it to us in just such a fashion.  Here is the opportunity, now is the moment, how will you decide?  As you can see, the decision you make, the direction you choose will have consequences.  Are you willing to take the chance?

There are problems with this ancient text.  It can certainly be seen to support a prosperity gospel, though I believe that is a misreading.  It can be read as presenting God as a harsh and punitive parent, though again that’s not how I read the conditions.  And, because, for the original Israelites, claiming the land of promise meant occupying a literal land, often through bloody, genocidal means, the metaphor of promised land can be tainted for many of us.

Still, I see a promise of more life here and a challenge for us to claim it for ourselves and all creation.  Let us ask ourselves what God has set before us – what dimensions of life and death, of blessing and curse, of happiness and distress, of fulfillment and disappointment.  Then, what would it mean for us to choose life, blessing, happiness, fulfillment of God’s promises for us?

Thelma Parodi is responsible for the title of this sermon.  She brought it to us at Bible study on Tuesday – “You want to be happy?”  She was clear it’s not a statement.  It comes with a big question mark.  Do you want to be happy?  I don’t think she meant smiley faces with giggles and facile laughter.  Do you want to be happy?  To be blessed? To feel fulfilled?  To know deep joy and peace that passes understanding?  Then you need to choose God, thereby choosing life in its richest, fullest sense.   Carolyn Sharp argues that in “[t]his deeply moving text… Moses is urging his people to commit, heart and soul and body, to a vibrant relationship with the God in whom they live and move and have their being.”  You want to be happy?  There it is.  Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.

If we want to be happy, to know the joy of the promise fulfilled, then we must turn to God, we must center ourselves in God, we must commit ourselves to following God’s ways, we must turn ourselves over to life-giving relationship with the Giver of all life.  It is not conditional in any obligatory sense.  The great irony is that God does not wish to punish us ever. God wants only the best for all us and all creation.  It is our self-centeredness, our selfishness, that does us in.  We think we’re in charge or we can do it by ourselves.  The awful consequences of not walking with God are the inevitable consequences of being outside that life-giving relationship.  It is in the very nature of choosing life that we find light and love.  The alternative is to choose death and to lose both light and love.

In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffin speaks eloquently of what it is like to choose life.  He says, “For joy is to escape from the prison of selfhood [where we often encounter obfuscation, apathy and death when left to our own devices] and to enter by love into union with the life that dwells and sings within the essence of every other thing and in the core of our own souls.  Joy is to feel the doors of the self fly open into a wealth that is endless because none of it is ours and yet it all belongs to us” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p.  123).  When we choose life, this is our “land of promise,” if you will – to be in concert with the Creator and all creation, to dwell with the riches of infinite blessing.  Even in the midst of our most difficult times and most painful struggles, this is the promise to which we assent.  This is the life to which we utter our inextinguishable “yes.”  You want to be happy?  Choose life.  More life, O God, more life.  Amen.

 

 

 

12.00

MORE LIFE

A sermon preached by

Randle R. (Rick) Mixon

First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Monday, February 16, 2014

 

Text: Deuteronomy 30:11-20

 

Sunrise

Mary Oliver

 

You can

die for it—an idea, or the world. People

have done so, brilliantly, letting

their small bodies be bound

to the stake, creating

an unforgettable

fury of light. But

this morning, climbing the familiar hills

in the familiar

fabric of dawn, I thought

of China, and India

and Europe, and I thought

how the sun

blazes

for everyone just

so joyfully

as it rises

under the lashes

of my own eyes, and I thought

I am so many! What is my name? What is the name

of the deep breath I would take

over and over

for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is

happiness, it is another one

of the ways to enter fire.”

 

 

This Ancient Word is an old story – it’s an interesting story but it’s not really our story, is it?  Here we have the children of Israel, gathered on the Jordan’s bank, looking over into the land of promise.  They’ve gathered to hear the last words of their leader, Moses.  He has led them through 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness while they grumbled and complained, often looking longingly back to Egypt, wondering if they would ever come to this new place that God and Moses have promised them.  Now we find them on the verge of realizing the promise.  Their old leader will not join them as the promise is fulfilled.  They will journey forward without him.  He has hard words of warning for them as they move ahead.  If they fail to journey with God, they will journey alone and the consequences will be disastrous.

 

But in the comfort our lives, settled already in a land of promises fulfilled, experiencing wonders and blessings beyond our imagining, this is not our story.  We’ve got it made.  We’ve already arrived, haven’t we?  What more could we want or expect?

 

The way I tell the story, my father had a photographic memory.  As a preacher, he would study all week, reading and reflecting on his text; then on Sunday morning, he would get up early, scribble six words on the back of an envelope, enter the pulpit and preach for thirty-five minutes, a well-thought out, well-reasoned and eloquent sermon.  That is not my story.  I approach preaching differently, and I know those of you who already think my sermons are too long are glad that I don’t preach for thirty-five minutes.

 

When I was in Granville, the little town celebrated its 200 anniversary.  Founded in 1805 by pioneers who headed west from Granville, Massachusetts, Granville, Ohio, felt in many ways like a New England village.  At First Baptist Church, we decided we would do a historical service to celebrate the anniversary.  It was an historical mish-mash but we had a good time remembering the long legacy of the village and the church.  I wore a frock coat and top hat.  We sang gospel songs and hymns from the mid 19th century and I “preached” a sermon written by Charles Baldwin, who was the congregation’s longest tenured pastor, serving for over 35 years.

 

The reason I could use one of Reverend Baldwin’s sermons was that the entire collection of handwritten manuscripts had been bequeathed to the archives of the village historical society.  I was granted access to those manuscripts and spent some time looking through them.  The obvious problems were that the language, style and theology were quite dated, not exactly what Granville’s current congregation would want to hear.  Also, Reverend Baldwin’s sermons were pages and pages long, typically lasting 45 minutes or more.  The people in Granville in 2005 were no more interested in listening to me preach that long than you are.  I finally found a manuscript that was adaptable and I edited it to an appropriate length for the day and age.  It was good compromise for an occasion of historical remembrance, but Reverend Baldwin’s story was not mine, nor did his sermon speak directly to his old congregation 125 years after he first preached it.

 

What’s the point of these digressions?  Nothing profound, I guess, except this morning’s scripture comes at the end of what some scholars call a very long sermon.  This is Moses’s farewell exhortation of his people and it covers the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  I’m quite sure you would not be comfortable listening to me proclaim the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  Maybe, if Moses himself was here, we might tolerate it.  But it’s really not our style nor is it our story.  Or is it?  Is there more life in this ancient tale than appears on the surface?

 

The verses we read this morning are the final words of Moses’s sermon, the climax that includes the invitation.  And, by the way, both my father and Reverend Baldwin would have concluded their sermons with such a climax and invitation to make a critical choice.  They would have urged a decision for discipleship, for following God’s way by following Jesus Christ.  We’re not comfortable with that sort of invitation these days.  Many of us are not comfortable with forced choices of any sort.  We don’t so much like, “It’s this or that.  You must choose; now is the moment of decision.”  We see life as much more nuanced and ambiguous.  We find ourselves living with the questions.  Very often there are no clear or easy answers.  So this is not our story, is it?

 

But perhaps there are moments in our lives when we need to step out in space and make a choice.  Might there be points at which we decide, placing our trust in God and God’s promises?  We may not be moving toward a literal land of promise but is there a symbolic land of promise for us, a place, a time, a state in which we would know more light, more love, more life if we were to make a clear choice, if we were to answer “yes”?  Brian Jones writes of our ancient word that “The choice is laid out bluntly. It is yes or no. The options presented do not include ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘I’ll give it a try.’”  Quoting from Star Wars, he reminds us, “As Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker who has half-heartedly promised to ‘try’ to do as Yoda asks, ‘No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try’” (Brian C. Jones, “Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20,” 9-18-2013, workingpreacher.org).

 

Moses and his people had been wandering together for 40 years.  They had been freed from captivity in Egypt but they had not found the place God had for them.  Now it was in sight, so close they could smell it across the river, but, before they entered, Moses had a last word for them.  See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”  There it was all laid out before them.  Sometimes God does put it to us in just such a fashion.  Here is the opportunity, now is the moment, how will you decide?  As you can see, the decision you make, the direction you choose will have consequences.  Are you willing to take the chance?

 

There are problems with this ancient text.  It can certainly be seen to support a prosperity gospel, though I believe that is a misreading.  It can be read as presenting God as a harsh and punitive parent, though again that’s not how I read the conditions.  And, because, for the original Israelites, claiming the land of promise meant occupying a literal land, often through bloody, genocidal means, the metaphor of promised land can be tainted for many of us.

 

Still, I see a promise of more life here and a challenge for us to claim it for ourselves and all creation.  Let us ask ourselves what God has set before us – what dimensions of life and death, of blessing and curse, of happiness and distress, of fulfillment and disappointment.  Then, what would it mean for us to choose life, blessing, happiness, fulfillment of God’s promises for us? 

 

Thelma Parodi is responsible for the title of this sermon.  She brought it to us at Bible study on Tuesday – “You want to be happy?”  She was clear it’s not a statement.  It comes with a big question mark.  Do you want to be happy?  I don’t think she meant smiley faces with giggles and facile laughter.  Do you want to be happy?  To be blessed? To feel fulfilled?  To know deep joy and peace that passes understanding?  Then you need to choose God, thereby choosing life in its richest, fullest sense.   Carolyn Sharp argues that in “[t]his deeply moving text… Moses is urging his people to commit, heart and soul and body, to a vibrant relationship with the God in whom they live and move and have their being.”  You want to be happy?  There it is.  Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.

 

If we want to be happy, to know the joy of the promise fulfilled, then we must turn to God, we must center ourselves in God, we must commit ourselves to following God’s ways, we must turn ourselves over to life-giving relationship with the Giver of all life.  It is not conditional in any obligatory sense.  The great irony is that God does not wish to punish us ever. God wants only the best for all us and all creation.  It is our self-centeredness, our selfishness, that does us in.  We think we’re in charge or we can do it by ourselves.  The awful consequences of not walking with God are the inevitable consequences of being outside that life-giving relationship.  It is in the very nature of choosing life that we find light and love.  The alternative is to choose death and to lose both light and love.

 

In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffins speaks eloquently of what it is like to choose life.  He says, “For joy is to escape from the prison of selfhood [where we often encounter obfuscation, apathy and death when left to our own devices] and to enter by love into union with the life that dwells and sings within the essence of every other thing and in the core of our own souls.  Joy is to feel the doors of the self fly open into a wealth that is endless because none of it is ours and yet it all belongs to us” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p.  123).  When we choose life, this is our “land of promise,” if you will – to be in concert with the Creator and all creation, to dwell with the riches of infinite blessing.  Even in the midst of our most difficult times and most painful struggles, this is the promise to which we assent.  This is the life to which we utter our inextinguishable “yes.”  You want to be happy?  Choose life.  More life, O God, more life.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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