Living is Christ (8/30/2015)

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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Text: Psalm 90; Philippians 1:20-30

“We all will die someday. Mortality rates remain at 100 percent, and nobody among us is getting any younger.” So writes Brian McLaren, tongue in cheek, in the beginning of this week’s chapter from We Make the Road by Walking. However, turning quickly to the point, he completes his opening by asserting that “Among the Spirit’s many essential movements in our lives is this: to prepare us for the end of our lives, without fear” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 249). It seems a curious thing to take a chapter entitled, “Adventures in the Spirit of God: Spirit of Life” to focus on death but that is indeed what he does this week.

As we come to the end of this journey with McLaren, it seems appropriate to spend time considering matters of life and death. He offers three scriptures from which to choose – the great 90th Psalm, with its contrasting claims for God’s eternal majesty and the fragile, limited life of humanity; Jesus confrontation with Sadducees about marriage in the afterlife (Luke 20:27-38); and Paul’s deep sharing about life and death with his friends at the church in Philippi. Each text says something significant about the nature of mortality and of eternity. In each case we are challenged to see death as part of life, inevitable in its coming, but not inevitably to be feared. Each tries to give us a view of life and the Giver of Life that will allow us to move from the limitations of the past through the present to God’s good and glorious future.

McLaren writes that “So many of us are afraid to even think about death much less speak of it.” Now I don’t know how that is for all of you but I have heard some of you say you are not afraid of death. Others may not be so certain. We won’t take a poll this morning, but McLaren continues to argue that “That fear [of death] can enslave us and can rob us of so much aliveness” (McLaren, op. cit. p. 249). What do you think? It makes sense to me. You know how it is when you worry so much about something going right that you ultimately spoil it? Surely those who live in fear of death are proportionately robbed of life. That is both sad and unnecessary for those claim to follow the way of Christ.

McLaren asserts that “The Spirit moves within us to help us face death with hope, not fear…with quiet confidence not anxiety” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 249).  Does that sound right to you? Can you feel the Spirit of Life moving in you, bringing hope, quiet confidence, as with Paul, even joy? In spite of being in prison, in chains, Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 4, 6-7).

How can someone in such dire straits be as positive, as hopeful as Paul? The only answer I can discern is that, for Paul, living is Christ. That’s what he tells his friends in Philippi. He does not seem to be boasting or showing off for them. Of all the churches he planted, this is the one for which he seems to have the most affection and hope. This is a community in which he is freer to bare his soul than any of the others. So he lays it on the line for them, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” How many of us can hear ourselves making such a claim – living is Christ, dying is gain?

If you love life as much as I do it is difficult to imagine how dying would be gain. I hear the old song, “I love life so I want to live, and drink of its fullness; take all it can give…” or Dylan Thomas urging us to “rage against the dying of the light.” Is Paul suffering from a martyr complex here? A few scholars have speculated as to whether or not he was suicidal. I hear none of that in this passage. I think that, living in Christ, Paul had overcome any fear of death.

Whatever had driven his early rage against followers of Jesus was subsumed in and transformed by his encounter with the living Christ. Lying on the ground dazed and helpless he saw through blinded eyes that living is Christ and he gave himself over to that new reality. For someone who had given himself so completely to Christ, Paul believed that dying to this present life would only bring him closer Christ, lead him deeper into the reality of that life-giving relationship. But what is this reality? What does it mean for us today? What would it mean for you or me to make as our central life claim that living is Christ?

As I was working on this sermon, I recalled a verse from Rosemary Crow’s song, “Weave.” I think many of us are familiar with the chorus,

Weave, weave, weave us together,
Weave us together in unity and love.
Weave, weave, weave us together,
Weave us together, together in love.

As I learned it, the final verse of the song sings,

A moment ago we did not know
Our unity, only diversity.
Now the Christ in me greets the Christ in thee
in one great family.

When I first heard those words, that last line struck me as a curious claim – “the Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.” Isn’t that sort of absurd and a touch heretical? Christ in me? I don’t think so. At least that’s not how I learned it in Sunday School. Jesus is Christ and I’m a sinner headed for hell if I don’t get my act together. As I’ve come to let go of any notion of hell – except that which we create for ourselves, maybe even through fear of death – I have come to wonder about this way of Christ we walk. “For our days on earth are a mystery, a searching for You, a yearning for the Great Mystery to make itself known” (Nan C. Merrill, “Psalm 90,” Psalms for Praying).

I said to the Bible study group recently that I have come to wonder about the role of “Christ-consciousness” in our lives. I know this may sound heretical for some, but what if a dimension of the Great Mystery was the willingness of Jesus of Nazareth to allow Christ to take root and grow in himself. There is then an evolution of consciousness as Jesus lives into his Christness. Perhaps part of the mystery is that, if Jesus can own his Christness, we might at least follow him along that road, growing into our own Christness. Is this what he means when he invites to come and follow him? If this sounds silly to you let it go, but what does it mean to claim that living is Christ, that Christ in me meets the Christ in you?

Indulge me for a few minutes more to explore some of what it might mean to be Christ. What do you think were characteristics or qualities of Jesus that made him Christ? Might you also claim these as the Christ in you? I realize this list came from our human consciousness, what we know or think we know of goodness or righteousness, God’s desire for creation, the Jesus way. But maybe we can claim that these characteristics and qualities show us what it means to say living is Christ. Paul writes to the Philippians,

8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4: 8-9).

Remember that one of the truth claims of our tradition is that in Christ death has been defeated. Through the resurrection Christ has shown that death, though a necessary rite of passage, has no real meaning for God who is all about life and living in every form. “Think about these things,” Paul instructs. McLaren picks up the challenge, “To be liberated from the fear of death – think of how that would change your values, perspectives and actions. To believe that no good thing is lost, but that all goodness will be taken up and consummated in God – think of how that frees you to do good without reservation. To participate in a network of relationships that isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree – think of how that would make every person matter and how it would free you to live with boundless, loving aliveness” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 250).

These seem to be the sort of things Jesus and Paul thought about that shape our faith tradition. These sound like the kind of qualities that might form a Christ-consciousness. These feel like qualities that will bring to life God’s Beloved Community to reality. In these ways, living is Christ. Can we claim it for ourselves? Amen.

A Night Well Spent

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

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Text: Acts 16:16-40

This week we have a long and powerful passage from the book of Acts to use as our text. Thanks to everyone who helped with the reading. Originally, I thought I would focus on the beginning of Acts, chapter 16, in which Paul and Silas wend their way toward Macedonia, led by the Spirit. Once in Philippi they seek out the other Jews and “God-fearers” living there to share the Good News. Here they meet a wealthy merchant named Lydia who not only responds positively to their witness but also takes them in. It’s a great story of conversion and hospitality. But in Bible study, Thelma suggested the title for this sermon – “A Night Well Spent” – and Doug noted that the text talks about prison and prisoners, a topic that is very much in the news today, so the sermon and service took a different direction.

Let me be clear from the outset that I am not suggesting a one to one parallel between this tale of Paul and Silas and we are seeing in the news today, but I do see parallels, if you will indulge me. Now I do have a few questions about this story we read. We know something about contemporary legal process through following the news and watching crime dramas. There is always right and wrong in these stories, someone is clearly innocent and someone guilty, right? In this story, as recounted by Luke, who are the bad guys and who are the good ones? It’s conflicted, isn’t it? Paul is our hero but he gets arrested. Isn’t the one arrested supposed to be the bad guy? In our own time we are coming to see that those arrested aren’t always the villains and those in power are not always righteous, are they?

What have Paul and Silas done to get themselves in trouble with the law? What exactly is their offense? Again, it’s conflicted, isn’t it? They were just minding their own business, walking their daily route to the place, down by the river, where their new community gathered to pray. But this strange girl kept following them and yelling at them. How do you think you might have responded if you had been in their sandals? It’s not difficult to imagine Paul’s annoyance. I think I would be annoyed if someone followed me down the street, calling me out.

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Actually, that’s not so bad, is it? She wasn’t calling them nasty names or making false accusations, was she? She was telling the truth. She was really lifting up their Good News, assisting them in their witness, helping to make their case. It must have been the loud way she was crying out that irritated Paul. The text says she was a fortune teller, she had an ability to read people and predict the future. What do you make of that? Was it a good or bad thing? Again, a conflicted situation. Apparently Paul decided it was an evil spirit that needed to be driven out of her. From Luke’s perspective, any such spirit was likely to be demonic. We don’t so much believe in “evil spirits” these days. We think more in terms of mental and emotional illness. But, whatever the label we put on it, Paul drove out that Spirit, he healed the girl, he liberated her, or did he?

After all, she was still a slave, wasn’t she? But now she was a slave without the gift that had made her unique and valuable. Luke’s story doesn’t say any more about her. You will have to complete the tale for yourself. Maybe she found some freedom, at least freedom and peace in Christ through the Good News of God’s Beloved Community. But I worry that her lot in life got worse, just because Paul was annoyed with her for telling the truth. Yes, I know that exorcism was common practice in those days; Luke and Paul are following Jesus’ own practice in liberating people from these “spirits.” I hope she was happier and healthier from that day on, but we just don’t know.

Moving on, what happens next? Are the girl’s owners thrilled that she has been healed, freed of her demon divination? Hardly. They are really ticked off. They have lost their lucrative prize, the source of their wealth. They are not happy at all. They grab Paul and Silas and drag them into the market place to appear before the local magistrates. In their anger, do they tell the truth? “These two fellows have taken our source of income. They have robbed us of what was rightfully ours.” That’s not exactly what we hear, is it? Instead of being honest about what has made them mad, they start slinging every angry allegation they can think of, a whole list of dubious and dishonest charges.

“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” What do you see as problematic about these charges? In first place, they were not disturbing the city. They were strolling down the street, attending to their own affairs. It is true that they had this subversive message they were trying to spread around, this Good News of the Beloved Community of God, but they really weren’t disturbing the peace at the moment they were seized – except, perhaps, for the peace of a couple of slave owners. What they were disturbing was the exploitative scheme of these so-called business men to make money at the expense of a poor girl who was mentally and emotionally vulnerable. We never encounter a thing like that today, do we?

Oh, yes, they were Jews alright, but what does that have to do with anything, except to appeal to the bias and bigotry of their fellow Philippians? Paul and Silas are simply singled out for appearing different. Antisemitism, along with racism and any number of other “isms” we might name, should not be legal arguments, should they? This charge smacks of “racial profiling” on the streets of ancient Philippi, something we almost never see on our own streets today, right? And what of these “unlawful customs” they are supposedly advocating? The charge is brought without a shred of evidence that anything inappropriate is being done. They were just walking down the street, minding their own business. Was it that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? We never see anyone busted on those grounds, do we?

By the time the “businessmen” have stopped slinging their slanderous charges, they have whipped the crowd into a frenzy, appealed to all the prejudice and stirred all the anger they can. I imagine the crowd becomes a mob, not unlike those who shouted, “Crucify him!” or “Burn, Baltimore, burn!” We know something of how anger and pain, frustration and fear can evolve into mob mentality, whether the cause is just or not. No one wants to listen and so eventually people lash out, right or wrong.

We don’t know exactly what motivated the mob in Philippi , but we do know that in this case, no one is interested in hearing Paul and Silas make their case. The magistrates have made up their minds, swayed by the mood of the mob and their own bias and bigotry. Our friends are simply whisked off to jail without another word. Is this justice? Is this a fair trial? I ask again, who is right and who is wrong here? Who is really guilty and who is righteous?

Whether or not this story is literally true – there were no reporters on the scene or video at 11 – it is still a telling tale, powerful in its witness to wisdom, truth and the grace of God to make a difference in human life, in partnership with faithful followers who are willing to take the Good News anywhere and everywhere. Though the situation may not be as grim, Paul and Silas, singing and praying in the bowels of a horrible prison, reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s observation that those who find meaning in life, who have something to hold on to, can survive the most horrific circumstances and eventually transform the world.

In this story, Paul and Silas bring the house down, quite literally. I don’t want to romanticize the earthquake, given the awful earthquake in Nepal last week. This shaking seems like a sort of deus ex machina in that chains are broken and doors opened but no other destruction is reported. Still, the idea that God holds real power to liberate is essential to the Good News. In this passage, we see God’s desire to liberate life wherever it is bound, in whatever circumstances. The liberation may not be realized perfectly in one particular moment, but the way is cleared for freedom as chains fall, doors open and spirits flee.

Something about this story that Paul and Silas come to share, the Good News they bring, the Christ to whom they bear witness, the God they serve, partners with the Spirit to bring about change. By rights, the prisoners ought to have fled, but they are all present and accounted for. Whether they are justly or unjustly imprisoned, they do not flee, all – the story says – so their jailer may find his own liberation. Improbable as this seems, it also tells a tale of compassion and grace, prisoners caring for the jailer and his liberation from his own binding. To make time and space for another, even at one’s own expense, is the sort of partnership that turns the world right side up.

A night well spent? You be the judge. I imagine Paul and Silas would say it was. Oh it was painful. The jail was rotten and their wounds ached, but somewhere, deep inside, they believed that the God who had liberated them and transformed their lives could work the same wonder in the lives of others. They gave their lives over to living out what they believed. The challenge for us is to do the same in our own time and circumstances. Will we give ourselves over to working for liberation, for justice, for peace, for the well-being of sisters and brothers everywhere, to bearing faithful witness to the coming of God’s Beloved Community in our lives and the world around us?

 Can we practice emancipation and resistance?

Listening and seeing?

Hope and healing?
Can we weep and pray together?

March and sing together?

Organize and mobilize together?
Until we forge and formulate together

The balm of peace and right relationship.

The salve of opportunity and self-determination.

The ointment of community and love.
Make it so, we pray.

Let us make it so. Amen.

(Michael-Ray Mathews, Disinherited: A Prayer of Lament, Longing and Love)