On Rising to the Occasion (10/30/2016)

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Texts: Luke 19:1-10

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.” That ditty ranks among the top Sunday School hits of modern times. Alan and I spontaneously broke into a rendition at Bible study on Tuesday. My, admittedly impaired, memory is that we sang about Jesus coming to his house “for tea.” Unless the song has British origins, I don’t know why we would sing about “tea,” except, of course that “tea” rhymes with “tree.”

All that aside, this story from Luke’s gospel still has something to teach us. It never hurts to be reminded of the transformative power of Jesus’ presence. Zacchaeus has heard about Jesus. He’s determined to see him. Jesus actually speaks to him, calls him by name, and his life is never the same again. Salvation comes to him and his household with the blessing of Jesus, the Christ.

Continue reading On Rising to the Occasion (10/30/2016)

It’s Me (10/23/2016)

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Texts: Luke 18:9-14

“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”  If memory serves me correctly, I first encountered this Spiritual some time in grade school. I doubt that it is sung much in public schools today, but the 1950s were a different time. State-prescribed prayer and Bible reading were still widely practiced in this country. As children, we probably did not grasp the full import of the song. We sang with gusto its lively tune, rocking out on the chorus – “It’s me, O yes it’s me.” The irony of our childish intoning of the text was how each of us felt different, special, better than all those folk named in the verses. Of course, the point of the song is humble acknowledgement of one’s need of God’s grace, not elevation of my particular neediness to something superior to yours. I suppose it was somehow developmentally appropriate for children to emphasize the “me-ness” in the song as we worked to find our individual identities. I hope I have come to enough maturity to understand that the point of the song is not to stress the significance of my need over yours.

Continue reading It’s Me (10/23/2016)

Or How Blessed You Are? (6/26/2016)

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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Text: Philippians 4:4-13

Dr. Seuss has been a good guide for us through this month in which we’ve celebrated our graduates and all those moving ahead in their education. He helped us see the possibilities and challenges of the places we might go. Through the eyes of the Lorax, he helped us see the consequences of greed and the need to love creation and care for the earth. Horton, the elephant, taught us something about the compassion and care of a most improbable daddy. We have encountered the doctor’s wit and wisdom, his art and passion, his challenging expectations and his tender heart.

In his little book, The Parables of Dr. Seuss, Robert Short describes the good doctor this way: “Dr. Seuss is a doctor of the soul, a doctor of wisdom, or a healer of the heart. So I don’t think it would be stretching things too far if we thought of Dr. Seuss as a sort of ‘spiritual cardiologist,’ a doctor who can work on many levels and with many different types of people” (Robert L. Short, The Parables of Dr. Seuss, p. 84). Continue reading Or How Blessed You Are? (6/26/2016)

Traveling in the Dark (3/13/2016)

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Text: Genesis 15:1-18

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to drive at night. Even before my eyesight began any significant aging, I was not crazy about driving after the sun disappeared. Maybe it’s related to all those weary trips of my childhood when my father would drive late into the night to avoid the searing heat of the August days as we drove from southern California to Louisiana. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really enjoy the challenge of trying to find my way in the dark, especially when piloting a powerful machine along an unfamiliar and unlit highway.

The irony is that I may be a better driver after dark because I am more alert. Since I am less of sure of what is going on around me, I tend to pay more careful attention to conditions and surroundings. My eyes may get tired more quickly because I am exercising them to a fuller capacity, trying to see in the dark. It is a stressful situation, so I am always happy to come to my stopping place to await the morning’s light.

As we have been learning in this Lenten journey, darkness has its assets as well as its liabilities. It will not do to label the darkness bad and the light good. The very fact that darkness invites a heightened awareness and more careful reading of our surroundings is a valuable thing. There are lessons to be learned in the dark, lessons that may save our lives, literally as well as spiritually. There are also lessons that might help us lessen the load for others. Traveling in the dark can be a journey inward but it may also be a journey outward, one we share with others along the way.

Today’s Song of Praise tells us that “Some have fled from terror by night, hiding from bullets by day.” For them, darkness provides life-saving shelter. I had a different hymn in mind for today, but I kept thinking about the reality of refugees, those who leave home and everything they hold dear in hopes of finding a better life or of just saving their lives. I was thinking of this partly because some of the America for Christ offering goes to support American Baptist Immigration and Refugee Services. And I also remembered that we have some in our congregation who know first-hand what seeking refuge is like. Talk about traveling in the dark – to be uprooted and flee to God only knows what future, if any, has to be terrifying at the same time it may be fueled by hope.

On the other hand, Joan Chittister observes that “Darkness is a very spiritual thing.” She says, “Darkness, I have discovered, is the way we come to see. It creates the depressions that, once faced, teach us to trust. It gives us the sensitivity it takes to understand the depth of the pain in others. It seeds in us the humility it takes to learn to live gently with the rest of the universe. It opens us to new possibilities within ourselves” (Joan Chittister, “A Walk into the Dark,” 2-22-2016, visionviewpoint@benetvision.org).

Does this ring true for you? Can you think of times when darkness has been your way to see? A place in which you’ve learned to trust? A time when you have cultivated compassion? A lesson you’ve learned about living? An opening to new possibilities? A life-saving opportunity?

There are many aspects of today’s text which we might explore, but I’m guessing our guides have chosen it because of what it teaches us about traveling in the dark. Abram here is confronted with both literal and metaphorical darkness. Neither is easily handled.

In the preceding chapter of Genesis, in a bit of convoluted military history, Abram, now a wealthy, powerful patriarch has won a great victory over an alliance of kingdoms that have conquered some other city-states and captured his nephew, Lot, with all his wealth. In an interesting footnote, the text says Abram’s successful military strategy is to divide his forces and attack the enemy under the cover of darkness – “He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them…” (Genesis 14:15). Darkness is their friend.

After the battle, when it comes time to divide up the spoils, the king of Sodom urges Abram to return his subjects to him but to keep all the goods. Abram refuses. He tells the king, “I have sworn to The Holy One, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me…” (Genesis 14:22-24).

Fresh from his victory and his righteous refusal of plunder, Abram finds himself alone before God. “Do not be afraid, Abram…” We hear the classic words, uttered so often when a human encounters the holy, even in a vision. “Do not be afraid.” That is so easy for the Holy One to say and so hard for humans to live into when face-to- face with the living God. It is an inherently frightening thing to encounter God, even when the word comes in a still small, voice. For the truth is that whenever we allow ourselves to explore deeply the realm of the holy, we are in unfamiliar territory. Holy ground is likely to be shaky ground for us. The invitation not to be afraid will increase anxiety at the same time it reassures. Who can explain such a mysterious paradox?

It is time for God and Abram to talk. Has Abram summoned God or has God come unbidden? The text doesn’t tell us, but the word is clear – “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Obviously there is a link to the events of the previous chapter. Abram was right to refuse plunder. God will take care of him, provide all that he needs. Abram believes God, but…there is this business of the heir. How can Abram be patriarch of a great people and inhabit the land of promise without an heir? The family tree will perish unless it bears some fruit, and, frankly, Abram and Sarai are beyond their prime, far beyond.

Haltingly, traveling in the dark, Abram decides to take God on. It is a measure of his great faith, his trust in God to keep God’s word, that emboldens him to question just when and how this promise will be fulfilled. God takes the old man outdoors to show him the midnight sky. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.” Well, it’s a beautiful, powerful image. It moves Abram deeply but it doesn’t really answer his question. He is left to travel in the darkness. In fact, the text tells us that as he sleeps “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon him. He really is in unfamiliar territory, questioning the Creator. This intimacy with God is not an easy place to find one’s self. Though driven by love, Aslan is no tame lion. And this fierce God is about to do a remarkable thing.

In the story God enacts an ancient ritual of covenant. In the original version of the ritual, the two parties entering into covenant would begin at opposite ends of a path between the split carcasses, walking toward each other, meeting in the middle and continuing to the other end as a means of sealing the covenant between them. The pledge they made was that they would be cut in half, like the sacrificial animals, if they failed to keep the covenant. But what is remarkable in this story is that it is God alone, in the form of the smoking pot and flaming torch, who walks the path, sealing the covenant.

In the end, it is not really a covenant that is created. God uses the ritual to show Abram how serious God is about keeping what God’s promises. God’s action is a gift of grace. God owes Abram nothing but God has said…and God will keep God’s word. In the end, still traveling in the dark, Abram accepts God’s word and comes to trust the promise. It is not a direct answer to his question and it is enough.

Traveling in the dark we find fear and blessing, terror and salvation. Richard Rohr writes, “God teaches the soul most profoundly through darkness–and not just light! We only need enough light to be able to trust the darkness. Trials and darkness teach us how to trust in a very practical way that a good God is guiding us. I don’t need to be perfectly certain before I take the next step. Now I can trust that even my mistakes will be used in my favor, if I allow them to be” (Richard Rohr, “Order, Disorder, Reorder,” 2-23-2016, cac.org).

So, here is the final word for today. God comes to Abram directly, according to the text. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes God needs us to act with God as agents of faith, hope and love. Sometimes God needs us to be trustworthy and keep promises of compassion and care on God’s behalf. Sometimes we must learn to walk in the darkness for ourselves so that we might also travel in the dark with others in need of a “friendly face,” a helping hand. Since we have each been a stranger, have had to find our way when the way was not clear, have had to learn to put our trust in the Holy One, we can also try to understand what it is like for others. There may be times when we feel we must travel the dark hills alone. Still, God says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And, if it is so for us, is this not good news we can share, indeed live out, with others who also travel in the dark? Traveling in the dark is a journey inward and a journey outward.

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton).

Get Out of Town (1/31/2016)

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

Sunday, January 31. 2016

Text: Luke 4:14-30 (The Message)

As I considered this morning’s text, I got to wondering how often you all agree with or like everything I have to say. I won’t actually take a poll, but I imagine every preacher and every sermon has fans and detractors. Fortunately, I’ve never made the congregation angry enough to want to do me in. I’m sure some would be happy if I just gave you the slip and was on my way – anywhere but here. Now, to be clear, I am not comparing myself to Jesus except perhaps in the function of preaching. A sermon is a sermon, for better or worse. As we consider this text, I am reminded of the old adage that a sermon, the gospel, the Word of God ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Jesus certainly did that big time.

He’d come back to his home church to preach for the first time. Though he probably did not have lot of formal education, he had gone out into the world to study in the “university of life,” to learn from his cousin, John, to listen for God’s guidance, to find the fullness of the ministry to which he had been called. Now he had returned to his home territory and was back at that little synagogue in Nazareth where he had learned to read and had studied the ancient texts. The place was packed. Everyone had come out to hear the” local boy made good.” Word had filtered back to them about the amazing things he was saying and doing as he traveled the countryside.

Can you imagine, living in a farming village of a couple hundred people? The brightest boy to ever come up in your little town had gone off to see the world and make his fortune. Now he was coming home for the first time in a while. Maybe there would be a parade and a picnic in the park, everyone gathered round to hear what their hero had to say.

I don’t know if Jesus’ experience was quite like that but Luke says when he stood up to read in the synagogue, “Every eye in the place was on him, intent…”and “All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke.” It seems they were excited, eager to hear him, proud of his growing reputation. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?” My, my, how he’s grown up. Hear how well he read? Doesn’t he make a good impression? His parents must be so proud.

They must also have been hoping that he would work some of those wonders they’d been hearing about for them. After all, weren’t they his people? The village that had raised him? Shouldn’t they have first claim on his gifts for healing, exorcism and teaching? Really, they thought, shouldn’t he establish himself right there in Nazareth? They didn’t come out and say as much but Jesus apparently had some inkling.

What was it he read to them on that momentous occasion – a couple of short passages from the scroll of Isaiah?

“God’s Spirit is on me;
he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!’”

Isn’t that lovely? Isaiah wrote so beautifully. I love to hear his words, especially when they’re so well read. I wonder what he will have to say about these texts?

He sat down, as teachers did in those days, and what he said astonished them. “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” There was an uncomfortable stirring in the room. What can he mean by that? How can this be? Is he making some sort of claim about himself and his ministry? Wait a minute, let’s go back over those verses he read one more time.

God’s spirit is on him…preach good news to the poor…announce pardon to prisoners…recovery of sight to the blind…freedom for the battered and burdened…the time is now? Sounds like some sort of social welfare agenda. That will never play in Iowa or New Hampshire or Nazareth. Are you now or have you ever been…? What happened to that great kid that Mary and Joseph raised? He’s gone out into the world and come back ruined. They chose to ignore that he had read from their own holy writings.

And then, to make matters worse, he rubs their nose in it by telling them that they have no exclusive or privileged claim on God’s good news or the amazing ministry of God’s Chosen One. He reminds them how both Elijah and Elisha, great prophets of their tradition, served foreigners, when plenty of their own were just as needy. Oh, they did not like this business about widening the circle, including outsiders, even giving them special consideration. In fact, they got so riled up, they ran him out of town, threatening to do him bodily harm. Good boy gone bad…certainly not welcome here…poor Joseph and Mary, they must be mortified.

In considering this ancient word, I can’t help but see parallels for us. We live in a time and culture characterized by insecurity and anger. We can see it infecting the current election cycle. People claiming to be Christian are twisting the Gospel into something unrecognizable. I can only imagine, they, too, would be appalled at Jesus’ reading and furious with this preferential concern for the poor and needy. Writing on the current state of politics in this country, Rachel Held Evans blogs, “This passage from Luke 4 is a declaration of the nature and aim of the gospel—the good news…it nearly got Jesus thrown off a cliff. As it turns out, the kind of people [the angry and insecure,] the Religious Right deem acceptable collateral damage in their quest for power—the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hated minorities—are the very people Jesus prioritized. His life and ministry started with them and his kingdom will ultimately be realized through them.” She insists, “The gospel isn’t about protecting power and privilege, but rather about surrendering them until God’s vision of justice is fulfilled.”

She goes on to tell the story of Donald Trump dropping in on worship at the First Presbyterian Church of Muscatine, Iowa, last Sunday. Preaching on the first part of this text from Luke, he heard pastor Pam Saturnia proclaim, “Jesus has come to proclaim freedom and healing to those who are the most unloved, who are the most discriminated against, the most forgotten in our community and in our world. Jesus has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor on the teenagers who are homeless, on the Syrian refugees, on the Mexican migrants, and the people who find themselves prisoners of addiction and their families, on the poorest of the poor in Haiti — Jesus has come for them” (Rachel Held Evans, “Donald Trump and a Tale of Two Gospels,” January 28, 2016, rachelheldevans.com). I won’t draw any conclusions. You can do that for yourselves, but I do wonder if he heard this as good news any more than the people of Nazareth heard Jesus’ proclamation as good news. Indeed, I wonder how easy it is for any of us to wrap our minds and hearts around such a word.

And Richard Rohr writes of the angry, insecure folk, “The cold person lives from a place of scarcity, invariably protecting and defending what little they think they have or are.” He argues that “The natural flow of grace is largely impossible when we are ‘sucking in’–when we’re stingy, petty, blaming, angry, playing the victim, or in any way offended. When we’re recounting what people did to us or what they did not do for us, we’re pulling back and sucking in” (Richard Rohr, “Grace: Week 1, Living in the Flow,” January 29, 2016, cac.org). Doesn’t that sound a lot like the good folk of Nazareth, not to mention some of our friends and neighbors and, truth be told, us, on occasion?

Then there is the challenge that Gregory and the children and youth have given us in this month’s special offering. We have at least been invited to consider moving beyond charity to solidarity, to actual community, with the poor and needy. In today’s Words of Preparation, Shane Claiborne challenges, “When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they start to get into trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity.” Honestly, I don’t know how we live into this challenge, but there it is, laid out, before us, much as Jesus laid out the challenge to his people in Nazareth.

Somehow, Jesus, the prophet, without honor among his own people, knew they would not hear or not embrace the way to God’s Beloved Community, even if he made it plain for them. He knew they would run him out of town. Perhaps, because we have the benefit of knowing their story, we can choose a different outcome. We can urge the prophet to get out of town, to leave us alone, or we can wake up to cries of our sisters and brothers in need. We can turn our backs, protecting our precious privileges and resources, or we can embrace the challenge to bring justice and equity, peace and harmony, love and compassion to the whole creation. We can proclaim Jubilee, or we can proclaim self-preservation. We can choose life, or death for ourselves, others, the planet. We can walk the Jesus way toward God’s Beloved Community, or we can try to hide from the inevitable day when God asks “And how was it with you and the least of these my children?” When Jesus proclaims the Good News in our hearing, how will we respond? Will he have to get out of town or will he find room with us? Amen.

 

Party On! (9/27/2015)

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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Text:   Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32; Romans 8:31-39; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58

A little over a year ago we began a journey with Brian McLaren. It was a journey through scripture as a sort of alternative lectionary. A big focus of the journey was a set of questions and considerations of what it meant to be alive. We journeyed through four major themes – “Alive in the Story of Creation,” “Alive in the Adventure of Jesus,” “Alive in a Global Uprising” and “Alive in the Spirit of God.” Covering the traditional church year, we began in Genesis and ended last week in Revelation – Alpha and Omega, beginning and ending, the story of our faith stretched out from start to finish. Today we are given a sort of epilogue – three of the most powerful and moving texts in the New Testament – the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Paul’s great assurance to the church in Rome that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” and his affirmation to the Christians in Corinth that “the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable” for “death has been swallowed up in victory” as God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Start to finish, we are invited to share with God in a kind of aliveness party. Celebrate, revel in the goodness of all that is and is to be. God is the great Host. Let the good times roll. Glasses will be full, tables groaning and the entertainment fabulous. Rejoice, the lost is found, the wanderer is home, the dead are alive. It’s time to party.

In the past I had not paid a lot of attention to the placement of the Parable of the Prodigal among the lectionary readings for Lent. We certainly don’t see Lent as party time. There is Mardi Gras, which is definitely party time, but that is before Lent, one last hurrah before we shut down for a season. Lent, at best, is a time of sober reflection before the celebration of Easter. It is preparation for a big party that comes after, but Lent itself usually means giving up indulgences and letting go of excess, not exactly party mode. Of course, a big part of the parable is the practice of repentance and that is surely Lenten material. This is a powerful story of the opportunity to turn one’s life around, whether one chooses to walk that road or not.

I especially love the line in which the gospel writer says the younger son “came to himself” or, better yet, “came to his senses.” “What a mess I’ve made of this precious life I’ve been given. Even daddy’s hired help are better off than I am. If I head home, maybe there will be a place for me to help out in the stables or the kitchen or the fields. Anything would be better than the fine fix I find myself in today.” This is a huge turn around, as the chastened child heads home, humbled and wiser for having come to his senses. This looks like big time repentance.

On the other hand, the older brother, who seems so upstanding and respectable, who has stayed close to his father’s side and who has been the “best little boy in the world,” is outraged by his father’s generosity and grace. If you stop to think about it, isn’t that a curious thing, to be angry with another’s generosity and grace? How dare you be kind and forgiving?

The story seems to say that the older brother has some repenting to do of his own, repentance that may be bigger and tougher than that of his naughty little brother. The opportunity is there. His father pleads with him to come inside and join the celebration of his brother’s return. The unanswered question, the question that Jesus is putting to the grumbling scribes and Pharisees, is whether or not the unrelentingly self-righteous can come to their senses, whether they can see their way clear to turning their lives around and joining the party.

Central to the Lenten discipline is the question of whether we can give up those things that get between us and God and others, whether we can let go of anything that separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul says nothing really can – unless we allow it to. Or as Richard Rohr writes, “… no love is lost in the universe,” asserting that he believes that “you are actually punished by your sins; whereas Western religions tend to teach that you are punished for your sins. Goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment” (Richard Rohr, “Karma,” September 21, 2015, cac.org). And that brings us to party time.

As we read the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke in Bible study, I was struck more strongly than ever that each of the three parables ends in joy and a party – certainly not the way we usually approach Lent. But listen to what the texts tell us. When the shepherd has found the lone lost sheep, “he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” And Jesus instructs, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:6-7). When the woman finds her lost coin, “she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” Jesus comments, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:9-10).

Then there’s the patient papa, waiting for his wandering boy to return so he can throw the most extravagant party the village has ever seen. Even the bitter, recalcitrant older son can’t stop the celebration. The people gathered in his father’s house party on, with or without him, though the invitation to join in is a standing one. No one wants him left out. But, as with each of us, he has to decide to accept the invitation.

Whatever else we find in this oh-so-familiar chapter of Luke’s gospel, there is joy, rejoicing, celebration, party time! And note that celebrating is never done in isolation. It’s not even the sort of private party the older brother wanted with just his friends. In each case the whole village is invited, friend and neighbors. Y’all come. Everyone’s welcome.

In fact, it was just a few verses before telling these parables that Jesus had said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). Didn’t the Pope practice something like this just this week when he declined to dine with the power elite of our nation’s capital in order to lunch with some of the city’s poor citizens?

Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the parable, “…this is an alarming story. It is about hanging out with the wrong people. It is about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill.” Contemporizing the parable, she projects, “…Jesus told this story to the ministerial association that was complaining about his dinner parties. He told them he could not hear them all the way across the restaurant, that they should come over and pull up some chairs. Because he saw them eating and he knew who they were — so clean, so right, so angry — he wanted to help them too, so he said, ‘Come meet my friends. Dessert is on me!’ And,” she concludes, “as far as I know, he is still waiting to see how the story ends” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Table Manners,” The Christian Century, March 11, 1998. P. 257).

The invitation to party on is extended. Who knows how they – or we will respond? We make the road by walking. We are free to choose our way. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –/ I took the one less traveled by,/and that has made all the difference” (Robert Frost, “The Road not Taken”). Or, as Yogi Berra intoned, perhaps less elegantly, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” In order to participate in the party, you have to accept the invitation and show up, no matter how you get there.

So here is route we’ve been walking the last year. “In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1). Now, “God in the End.” We move from God to God. It’s the rhythm of life. In fact, it’s all about life, aliveness, liveliness, and, in the end, an invitation to party on. Yes, there are rough times, hard tasks, pain and suffering, detours, disappointment and even death, such as it is. But, in the end, the God who created everything and called it very good chooses to fulfill all the promise of that creation, to redeem it and reconcile it to God’s Self through Christ Jesus. McLaren writes, “…we look forward to a festive celebration that beckons us from the future. The story began in God’s creative love, and it ends in God’s creative love, too…if such an ending can even be called an ending…The whole story flows toward reconciliation, not in human creeds or constitutions, but in love, the love of the One who gave us life and being (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 261, 262).

In the beginning God; in the end God; and all along the way, God – with us, in us, through us. God and the eternal invitation to party on. Amen.

A Lesson in Humility (October 26, 2013)

sermonsA LESSON IN HUMILITY
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Monday, October 27, 2013

Luke 18:9-14

A long time ago, when I was first coming out, I participated in support groups led by a pioneering psychologist named Don Clark. In addition to weekly group meetings, we would have periodic weekends of intense sharing, all focused on what it meant to be a man in general and a gay man in particular. I will never forget an incident from the end of one of those marathon weekends. As I recall, I was feeling pretty good about the work I was doing in self-understanding and ways to make my way in the world as a self-affirming gay man. Another participant was a young man from Los Angeles who was really struggling to find his way and claim his worth.

I must have had a lot to say that weekend, sharing freely all I was discovering and the good feelings I was having about myself. When it came time for the closing circle, in which we shared some personal feed-back with each of the other participants, this young man fixed his gaze on me and said something like, “You’re so sure of yourself, so certain you’ve got it all figured out. You’re just as messed up as the rest of us!” His language was actually more colorful, but you get the idea.

Needless to say, I was rocked by his attack. It seemed to come from nowhere. I don’t remember what my response was, if anything. Surely he was calling out his own pain and I could have attributed his remarks to envy. Still, his words caused me to pause and consider where I really was in my life. How had I been presenting myself? Maybe I had been a little too confident, a little too eager to share my perspective, a little too determined to articulate what I was learning. It may be, in fact, probably was so, that I had learned more than I had actually integrated into my life and he could see through the veneer to my inevitable limitations. He could sense what I still lacked before arriving at any ideal. It was a hard thing to hear and it was good for my growth. It was a lesson in humility.

We are never really all we can be or as good as we want to be. There are lessons to learn and there is growth to experience. We are all journeying together on this road of life. Compassion for our companions will always get us further down the road than self absorption.

I think about this story of mine when I read today’s parable. I think the point of the stories is very similar – a lesson in humility for the self-righteous. Jesus’ parable sets a very clever trap for his hearers, as indeed all his parables do. If you follow conventional wisdom, you’d think that the Pharisee would be the good guy and the Tax Collector the bad guy. Pharisees could surely be a pain but they were people of faith in search of righteous living, weren’t they? Tax Collectors were lower than dirt. They collaborated with the Roman oppressors and they made a living cheating people out of their meager resources. A Pharisee was redeemable but a Tax Collector? Never.

That analysis would work if Jesus hadn’t already turned the tables quite thoroughly. By the time Luke recounts this parable, most of those listening would have been familiar with Christ’s criticism of the too-often hypocritical self-righteousness of Pharisees. They would have been aware his habit of dining with Tax Collectors, bringing transformation to their lives and calling them as disciples. The crowd would have known by now that, from Jesus’ perspective, the Pharisee was the bad guy and the Tax Collector the good. You could hear the murmurs of disapproval for the Pharisee and pity for the Tax Collector. The catch in the parable is this reversal of social status, this flipping of respect for cultural roles, right?

Well, not exactly. Here’s the real catch. According to Richard Vinson, “We knew before this one started who the good guys and the bad guys were going to be. The Pharisee was going to get whacked for being a self-righteous, self-satisfied, judgmental hypocrite, and we were going to thank God that we are not like him. Gotcha!…That’s the trap this parable lays: we knew when the parable began that the Pharisee would get whacked, but we didn’t expect that we would be the Pharisee” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 572).

How easy is it for any of us to drift into self-righteousness when we are feeling good about ourselves, or, conversely, when we’re covering for our missteps and limitations? If we took an anonymous poll, how many of us might confess to feeling just slightly superior to some individual or class of persons at some point in our lives? It’s subtle, insidious. It infects us without our knowing until it’s too late and someone has to remind us that we are as messed up, or limited, or vulnerable as everybody else. Vinson, again, paints the picture this way: “We begin praying, ‘Thank you God, for the blessings of my life’…” It sounds innocent enough, right? Don’t we often begin our prayers this way? But then, he says, we “…slide into, ‘I thank you that we are the most prosperous, most freedom-loving, most righteous people on the planet.’ Or we begin praying, ‘Lord, I’m sorry for what I did,’ but veer off into thinking, ‘but they made me, and they do it, too, worse than I do.’ Or start, ‘Lord, please bless so and so,’ and in the next breath, ‘even though I’d like to tell him where to get off’” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 572).

Am I wrong about this? Am I the only one with this tendency to slip into judgment? Am I the only one who needs to hear again this lesson in humility?

Thomas Merton believes that “There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people].” He writes, “As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God. Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere from the rest of [humanity]? Who can do good things without seeking to taste in them some sweet distinction from the common run of sinners in this world?” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 48-50, quoted in Vincent, op. cit. p. 571).

I believe there is something in human nature that struggles with grace and it challenges our ability to be humble. We fear that we will never truly be good enough. We believe that somehow we have to earn our keep, to work for our worth, to merit love and understanding. After enough practice, self-righteousness can become a way of life that masks our inner challenges. Richard Rohr reminds us that “We each need to stand under the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God—to understand the very nature of reality. When we are too smug and content, then grace and mercy have no meaning—and God has no meaning. Forgiveness is not even desired. When we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, religion is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how divine life is transferred, how people change, and how life flows” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, “A Central Point,” 10-26-2013, cac.org).

Neither self-flagellation or self-aggrandizement is God’s way. That is what Jesus keeps teaching and living. There are no second-class citizens in God’s realm nor are their superior beings. God’s love is equally distributed among all – because it is love – and that is the nature of love, to reach out to all to provide healing and wholeness, to bring full and abundant life. It’s just that we have so much trouble accepting that there really is enough for everybody – for you and me and all the world.

This lesson in humility is given “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” and its message is that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” That’s the way it is with God’s love and grace. We are lifted up when find ourselves bowed down and we are leveled off when we have come to think more highly of ourselves than is warranted. Both the lifting up and the leveling off are acts of love and grace. To be humble is to have an accurate sense of worth, neither underestimating nor over-valuing one’s self. We are loved and valued for our very being, as children of God, made in God’s image and likeness. Healing and wholeness is available to all who turn to God and accept what is freely given. The healing may be an enlarging or a scaling back as humility requires.

Lift me, Lord, when I am sinking down and level me when I overreach. Help me to live always in the humility of a common humanity that will bring the joy of salvation to me and all creation. Amen.