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)

Itching Ears (10/16/2016)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 16, 2016

Texts: Psalm 119:97-104; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 18:1-8; 2 Timothy 4:1-5

I probably should have entitled this sermon something like, “Itching Ears and Open Hearts,” because I think each of the lectionary texts this week shows deeper interest in the condition of the human heart than the state of our ears. I rarely try to weave all the texts for a given week into one sermon, but these four texts seem to invite it.

To begin with, Psalm 119, which is a kind of love song or hymn to God’s law is much less concerned with the letter of that law than its spirit. The section chosen for today begins, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” Now I don’t know about you but I don’t generally think of the law as something to love. It will take some time and effort to understand the 17 ballot measures that may or may not become law on November 8, but I don’t plan to spend all of the next 24 days meditating on them, though I may have more to say about them between now and November 8. I’ve already grown so tired and disgusted with the overgrown and misleading advertising for the various measures that I’ve taken to muting all political ads as soon as they appear on my television screen.

Continue reading Itching Ears (10/16/2016)

Facing Our Fears (2/14/2016)

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Text: Exodus 19:16-19; 20:2-3, 18-21; Luke 4:1-13

Two tales from the Wilderness lead to this morning’s Reflection on the Word. They are separated by centuries. They involve different characters and they describe different actions. But, what they have in common is God – the same God who searches and knows hearts and minds, who leads those who will follow in what the psalmist identifies as “the way everlasting.”

I don’t think we can unpack these stories without first having some sense of what we mean by wilderness. The dictionary records that wilderness is “a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland; any desolate tract.”

It also lists as a synonym, desert, which connects more directly to our texts. Desert is defined as “a region so arid because of little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all; any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.”

The key common descriptors are wild, uncultivated. Wilderness may appear as a desolate wasteland, a desert, but not necessarily. Wilderness may be as fecund, as full of life, as the chaos from which creation was drawn. We might even argue that God dwells in that chaos, in a dimension beyond our understanding and control. In today’s texts it is clear that God is encountered in the wilderness. The Holy One is experienced in ways quite different from the ordinary patterns of everyday life. This all holds the prospect of being a little bit scary, doesn’t it?

In today’s first story, God graciously offers the children of Israel a homeland, “flowing with milk and honey.” All they need to do is go with God, following Moses, God’s ordained leader, and they would be taken care of. The problems begin when they are confronted with the unknown, when they look out across the wilderness and think maybe they would have been better off in the familiar territory of Egypt, even if it meant slavery. How often do we come up against the unknown, confront chaos, or perceive desolation in some wilderness and say, “Not today, thank you”? We hear the story of the Hebrew people and we recognize it in so many ways as our own. Called to follow, we drag our feet, grumble and resist all the way. Promised land? Way everlasting? Lovely ideas, but what will the journey cost? We’re afraid it will require more than we’re willing to pay. I mean, what if it takes all that we have?

Here they are at the foot of the mountain. God comes close and they’re terrified. Well, who wouldn’t be? You have to be careful what you ask for. You want God to take care of you but then, when God shows up in a sudden storm and you’re out there in the wilderness, you’re not so sure you trust what will happen. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When it is all over – when the people have witnessed the thunder and the lightning, when they have heard the blast of the trumpet and seen the mountain smoking – every single one of these people who have prayed and prayed to hear the voice of God does a complete about face, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen,’ they say to Moses; ‘but do not let God speak to us, or we will die’” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 47). How can we survive the presence of the Holy One? Our tendency is to choose the familiar over the fearful, no matter how the familiar may enslave and abuse us.

It is tough enough to face our fears in the comfort of our homes; it can feel overwhelming to have to face them while wandering in the wilderness, detached from the familiar, praying that something or someone larger than we will rescue us. In The Chronicles of Narnia, when the rescuer turns out to be a fierce lion, the children are not so sure they want to trust Aslan to lead them through this strange new world. They are afraid. It takes time and practice for them to let the lion lead them to where they need to be. In the same sense, it takes time and practice for the children of Israel to let go of their fear and trust that God and Moses will bring them through. It takes time and practice for us to trust that God will lead us into the way everlasting. It may be that we will need to traverse some frightening wilderness. We may have to learn to walk in the dark.

In the second tale, Jesus is also drawn to the wilderness. Though the circumstances are different, one might consider that it is the same Holy Spirit that leads Jesus as led the children of Israel. There seems to be something about the wilderness that allows folk to encounter God in a depth and intensity that is not possible in the relative safety of everyday life. For Jesus, this story takes place immediately after one of the high points of his life. And how often is that so, immediately after we have been the mountain top we are plunged into some of the greatest challenges of life? Our spirits, soaring, are sorely tested. Jesus, Luke writes, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” Now I take that to be a good thing. Scripture seems to think it is. I can imagine several other things we might be full of that would be less desirable. But, I wonder how many of us have actually been filled with the Spirit in this way. I can’t help but think that there is also something a little strange about it, a little fearful. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time. Luke doesn’t say if it was so for Jesus but I wonder.

Anyway, Jesus seems to go willingly with the Spirit into the wilderness on a sort of vision quest, a journey to find a deeper, more intense connection to God. For him, it seems essential to living into his high calling from God. He cannot do the work before him, he cannot walk the road that lies ahead, without God and so he must engage in a spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting to prepare for what is to come. Is it really different for any of us who want to walk God’s way? We need to engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting to get ready for the journey. That is the point of Lent, to prepare for what lies ahead, to know how to survive in the wilderness so we might come to the comfort of home, to learn to walk in the dark as surely as we walk in the light.

These temptations or tests that Jesus faces at the far edge of his wilderness wandering are uniquely his. They pertain to the work and the walk to which God was calling him. Whatever else you make of them, they were real. They represented alternate ways of accomplishing the task, but they were not God’s way. Remember the thunderous voice from the storm-tossed mountain top, ”I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me”? This is one of those places where God is fierce and uncompromising. That can be a frightening thing. Jesus had to confront it, as did the children of Israel, as do we.

As Jesus faced his own tests, wrestled with his own temptations, so must we. This is actually a situation in which the humanity of Jesus meets our own. Richard Vinson argues that, eventually, “power comes out of Jesus to heal others, and this sounds a bit like a holy energy that resides in Jesus. But Jesus claims to be able to cast out demons ‘by the finger of God,’ which is to say that he does it as God’s agent and not by his own spiritual power (11:19).” He continues, “If God wanted Jesus to turn stone into bread, he could, but not otherwise; it is a mistake to think that Jesus, by virtue of being Son of God, had supernatural powers residing in him that were unavailable to ordinary mortals.” As we considered a couple of weeks ago, “According to Luke, Jesus assigned the disciples the same authority and ability to heal and to cast out demons, so it was not innate to Jesus, but a gift of the Spirit” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 112).

Now there’s a scary thought, to consider how much more we might do to change the world if we trusted the gifts of God and the Spirit’s ability to work through us. We know that sometimes the first disciples measured up and sometimes they failed miserably. A lot depended on their willingness and capacity to face their fears. Remember how Peter succeeded in walking on water in the midst of the storm till he looked around and let his fears overwhelm him? Couldn’t the same be said of us? Sometime we rise to the occasion and sometimes we look around and let our fears overwhelm us.

“Courage,” Greg read, “which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced…How do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?…If we believe a bright security light keeps us safer after dark, there is not a statistic in the world with power to persuade us otherwise” (Barbara Brown Taylor, op. cit., pp. 37, 71). And so it is with all our fears. If we do not face them, if we are not open to wilderness wandering, if we do not learn to walk in the dark, if we are not brave enough to say “no” to anything that would separate us from God and walking God’s “way everlasting, then we will experience a kind of living death. Life may seem alright on the surface, but someday we will come to the question, “Is this all there is?” Here is the question at the heart of facing our fears, posed by poet, Mary Oliver, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”). Are you willing to do a little wilderness wandering? Will you take a chance on meeting God in deeper, more intense ways? Are you ready practice a little courage, learn to walk in the dark, take a chance on the Spirit moving mightily in you – and in us? These are questions to take into our Lenten spiritual discipline. These are the same questions Jesus must have asked as he turned his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. Will we walk with him, all the way, this time?

SAY WHAAAT?

easter_cross.fwA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon, First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, April 5, 2015

Text: Luke 24:1-12 (The Message)

“Say whaat? You went to the tomb the first thing this morning and it was empty? Are you kidding us? The grave clothes were folded neatly on the ledge and you were met by a couple of angels who told you he was raised up? You girls must have gotten into the wine left over from last night’s supper! And so early in the morning! Shameful! This is just plain crazy talk!”

You get the point. The women returned from the burial site and were met with scorn and disbelief when they tried to share what they had seen and heard. I’m sure this was not the first or last time that witnesses were or will be disbelieved, laughed at, written off. We know from many crime dramas that eye witnesses can’t always be trusted and what these women were reporting was second hand. They hadn’t actually seen a risen Jesus, had they?

We’ve heard Luke’s account of the empty tomb before, perhaps many times over many years, but I have to say that this year I was struck particularly by the treatment of the women. Yes, I had noted it before, but this time it really stood out for me, “…the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.”

Sadly, a major reason for the disbelief was that the story came from women. David Lose observes, “Luke says that those who received the testimony of the women regarded their message as an ‘idle tale.’ [But] that’s actually a fairly generous translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word ‘delirious.’ So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense” (David Lose, “If It’s Not Hard to Believe, You’re Probably Not Paying Attention!” March 24, 2013, workingpreacher.org).

In his commentary on Luke, Richard Vinson writes, “It is well documented that many 1st-century men thought that women were not as reliable as men as witnesses, being more emotional.” He quotes Joesphus who wrote, “…let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…” He then quotes Philo who “also thought women were naturally inclined to be deceitful; writing ‘…woman is a selfish creature and one addicted to jealousy in an immoderate degree, and terribly calculated to agitate and overturn the natural inclinations of a man, and to mislead him by her continual tricks…’” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 743).

Luke, who often goes out of his way to lift up women in his gospel, seems to be underscoring here one of the great transformations needed if the gospel is to be realized. There is a significant place for women in the Beloved Community of God, but the Apostles still have much to learn. Vinson continues, “Luke has told the reader early on that these women were part of the group from the beginning, and that their ministry and their providing of their means kept things going. Why, then,” he wonders, “do the guys ignore them? They heard the same predictions the women did; Peter, James, and John knew that two heavenly messengers appeared with Jesus before [Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration], and so the testimony of the women should have been credible.” Besides that, “They know these women; James and John are doubting the word of their sainted mother, for crying out loud…they are not thinking straight when they dismiss the testimony of their wives, mothers, sisters, and companions in the faith as ‘foolish chatter’” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 743).

You get the point. We’ve come a long way but we still have a lot to learn in this area. Still, I imagine the Apostles’ disbelief was not to be blamed totally on the fact that it was women who first shared it. The text says goes on to say that Peter became curious enough to check things out for himself.  However, he shows up too late. The tomb is still empty, the grave clothes are there but the angels have moved on. He is left in a state of wonder. He walks “away puzzled, shaking his head.” Puzzled, but still without a word of belief in the tale the women had told.

We have heard this story over and over centuries. It has become a part of our lore, familiar to us and largely unquestioned. We celebrate the event annually with color and flowers, with music and joy. We retrieve our “alleluias” and shout “He is risen!” But there were no alleluias on that first Easter morning. No one shouting, “He is risen!” No one responding, “He is risen indeed!” Put yourself in their shoes. Take a minute to try to imagine what it must have been like that first Easter morning.

Imagine the women. Luke implies that a whole group of them showed up – maybe all the women who gather for our monthly women’s brunch. They had come to do their duty and a sad duty it was. They hadn’t been able to prepare properly the body for burial as the sun set on the Sabbath. They had gotten up early to finish the painful task. There probably wasn’t a lot of chatter, idle or otherwise. as they made their way in the dim morning half-light to the tomb.

Imagine the shock of finding the stone rolled away, the body absent, the grave clothes neatly folded. Imagine yourself in the presence of angels, those holy spectral figures bathed in dazzling light. Hear their chiding challenge, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Caught off guard, what would your response have been? Mark’s gospel records that they fled in fear, but Luke has them flying back to the city, to the place where the rest of the group was hiding, their feet barely touching the ground. Their sad silence was broken. They couldn’t wait to tell everyone what they had seen and heard. How about you? Does the good news ever capture you in such a way that you can’t keep quiet?

And then imagine bursting into that room where the others were gathered – some quietly crying, some pondering the next step, some still in troubled sleep – the room dark, grim and despairing. “Wait! Wait a minute. Listen everybody. We were just at the tomb and, you’re not going to believe this, but the body was gone! The tomb was empty!” Nobody was prepared for this. No one had time for it. It was easier to dismiss these women as delirious in their grief, right? Can you see how difficult belief would have been in that sorrowing environment?

From the vantage point of two millennia of Christian tradition, we can say, “Surely they should have seen what was coming. Jesus had been talking about it for months. Why were they so slow to hear it, to get it?” Reflecting on these questions, Craig Koester, writes that “Unbelief does not mean that people believe nothing. Rather, it means that they believe something else. People say ‘I don’t believe it’ because there is something else that they believe more strongly” (Craig R. Koester, “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12,” April 4, 2010, workingpreacher.org).

They had hoped for a messiah who would drive out the Romans, put the collaborators and religious leaders in their place, re-distribute the land and relieve them of all their sickness, oppression and poverty. Jesus not only failed to meet their expectations, he got himself killed, and without even putting up a fight. You can imagine they were all pretty much down, devastated, hopeless. How could they wrap their minds around the women’s story? How does any of us wrap our minds around such a story?

Koester concludes, “…here is where the Easter message begins its work, by challenging our certainties (Koester, op. cit.). It challenges our certainties much as it must have challenged theirs. In the reminder of the angels, in the subsequent appearances of Jesus, they had their memories jogged as happened first to the women at the tomb: “Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Or as with Cleopas and companion on the Emmaus Road:  “’Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). Their response:  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

Is this not true resurrection, when the Word of God comes alive in us – jogging memory, enlivening consciousness, flaming in our hearts? Above all, Jesus came with an urgent message about the in-breaking of God’s Beloved Community. It was a community different than any they had known or imagined. It was not the Pax Romana founded on imperial power and military might. It was not the obsessive ritualization of religious practice forced on them by some of their religious leaders. It was not the grinding poverty of their daily existence. It was not even an “us overcoming them” way of life.

In a great article from this week’s Boston Globe, Brandon Ambrosino has this to say about the real significance of the story those women brought from the empty tomb that first Easter morning. He writes, “What’s radical about Easter…is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. ”  He sees that “Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do queer lives and the lives of undocumented aliens within our borders — ‘Remember the stranger in your midst’ is a common refrain in this kingdom” (Brandon Ambrosino, “Jesus’ Radical Politics,” April 1, 2015, bostonglobe.com).

How does this ring for you this Easter morning? Would you rather keep the story enshrouded in ancient myth and mystery, lovely lore that rarely challenges  or would you be willing to accept a more radical resurrection with a here and now flavor? If you choose the latter, part of the task for twenty-first century disciples is to remember the deep meaning of the first Easter for those first followers, how it changed their lives forever. Then, it is to let the Christ consciousness fill your mind, the flame of the Spirit kindle fire in your heart and the Beloved Community of God to become real in the living of your life. Compassion and hospitality, justice and equity, peace and love are to become our way of life as we let the Lord of Life rise and live in us. We become Easter people in the way those first disciples did and the world is never the same again. He is risen! Is he risen in you and me? Let us make it so. Alleluia. Amen.

Little Man, Big Gifts (November 3, 2013)

sermonsLITTLE MAN, BIG GIFTS

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 3 2013

Luke 19:1-10

 “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true… one was a doctor and one was a queen, one was a soldier and one was a priest,” one was a tax collector…ewwwww.  That’s not how it’s supposed to go.  Tax collectors can’t be saints.  There’s no way that one of them would find salvation and be welcomed into the kingdom.  Patient? Brave? True?  Not a tax collector.  No way.

Can’t you hear the crowd carry on like this, that day, in Jericho?  They couldn’t believe that Jesus would single out a tax collector, especially one as infamous as Zacchaeus to receive his favor.   That “wee little man, oh a wee little man was he!”  Right, Naomi?  He was not only small in stature, he was also small of heart, or so everyone said.  He defrauded everyone to line his own pockets and his henchman both collected and protected at every turn.  The term tax collector and the name Zacchaeus curdled on their tongues.

Now understand that, though most of them felt this way, they would never have said it to Zacchaeus’s face.  He was in bed with the Romans and protected by his own crew.  He was not only rich, he was powerful.  No need to stir up unnecessary trouble.  Ordinarily they would have bowed and scraped to him, keeping their resentment bottled inside.

But today was different.  Today they were marching along with Jesus as he made his way steadfastly to Jerusalem.  It was a day of celebration.  They borrowed just enough courage from him to grumble when he stopped to address Zacchaeus, sitting undaintily on the long limb of a sycamore tree.  A tax collector…ewwww.  How could he engage such a scoundrel – and spoil their good time in the process?

Luke gives us more information about Zacchaeus than most of the characters that inhabit his gospel.  First, we have his name and his occupation and his social status.  He was rich and despised.  He was not just any tax collector.  He was wealthy enough to have bought up the tax collecting franchise for all of Jericho, a significant city on a major trade route.  He was no small time thug.  But he was small.  Luke makes a point of telling us this.  It seems a necessary prelude to Jesus finding him up a tree.  A “wee little man was he!”

According to Mikeal Parsons, “Luke has spared no insulting image to portray Zacchaeus as a pathetic, even despicable character. He paints a derisive and mocking picture of a traitorous, small-minded, greedy, physically deformed tax collector sprinting awkwardly ahead of the crowd and climbing a sycamore tree like an ape.” In addition, Parsons “suggests that Luke’s audience would have heard ‘small in height’ and thought ‘small in spirit’—greedy, but also with low self-expectations, the opposite of ‘great-souled’” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 590).  You get the picture.  They saw Zacchaeus as an all around little man and there was no compassion in their assessment.

There is cause to wonder just what Zacchaeus was up to that day.  Why was he out in the crowd alone?  Where was the rest of his crew?  Why did he not demand deference and move to the front of the crowd?  Though thoroughly disliked, he wielded the sort of power with which he could easily have commanded the best position along the parade route.  Why was he skulking around by himself?

Something was going on inside Zacchaeus that day.  With the rest of the crowd, he would have heard the stories of this remarkable rabbi from Galilee – how he healed and freed and fed and taught and challenged local authority while claiming the authority of the coming reign of God.  Something had seeped into the tax collector’s consciousness and into his shrunken heart.  He was ill at ease.  He had not slept well the night before.  Something was gnawing at him and he needed to have answers.  He needed to see for himself.  Somewhere deep inside he knew he was venturing into territory that was completely incompatible with his daily routine.  Everything he had heard about this Jesus disturbed his comfortable way of life, filled him with doubts about the path he was on, and disoriented his settled sense of himself.

In this troubled state he wandered down to the roadside.  He saw the crowd had already gathered and it was too late summon his crew to clear the way.  The buzz indicated that Jesus was very near.  What was Zacchaeus to do?  Being the highly resourceful fellow that he was (after all it does take brains and skill to be a highly successful tax collector, a “chief” tax collector,) he climbed up the nearest tree.  He gave no thought to the indignity of this action.  He had to see for himself.  He had to have some clearer sense of what this Jesus was all about.

In Bible study, Alan thought that this behavior on the part of Zacchaeus required courage and that may be so.  He certainly is putting himself out there, taking significant risks in his search for…what?  What is it he’s searching for?  There is more than curiosity here.  His behavior indicates someone whose drive is far beyond curiosity.  He’s looking for something, something more in his life, something that satisfies his deepest longing, something that wealth and power clearly cannot provide.

We know the rest of the story.  We learned it early in Sunday School.  There is Jesus, wondrously stopped at the base of the very tree in which Zacchaeus is ensconced.  “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  Don’t you imagine that little man nearly felt out of the tree in his haste to descend?  He didn’t have to be asked twice.  The moment he saw that face fixed on him, looked into those piercing eyes, felt the commanding presence of the Christ, he sensed that he had found what he was looking for – way, truth and life.

Wouldn’t you have loved to have sat at the tax collector’s table that day as Jesus laid it all out for Zacchaeus, told him everything he’d ever done, looked at that longing in his little heart while it cracked open and grew three sizes, as he blessed that growth.  As we’ve already affirmed, Zacchaeus may have been small, but he was smart and he was quick.  It didn’t take him long to understand what was required of him.

Gifts, big gifts flowed from that house that day.  Not only did he throw a feast for Jesus, he stood up from the table and gave away everything he had.  Oh, I know preachers over the years have tried to make it appear that Jesus blessed Zaccahaeus in spite of his wealth and maybe it is possible to be rich and still love Jesus.  However, if you analyze the formula the tax collector lays out, it ought to leave him pretty much penniless.  First, and perhaps best, he’s going to give half of what he possesses to the poor, right off the top.  Then he’s going to give a fourfold return on all the surcharges he’s added to the state’s tax burden.

Richard Vinson writes of these big gifts, “Start with the last statement: if he does not defraud, he makes no profit…The tax-farming system was based on greed and fraud, and if tax collectors only collected what was actually owed to Rome, there would be no incentive to collect taxes, and things would grind to a halt.  So of course Zacchaeus has defrauded people; so have all the underlings who work for him, who actually collected the taxes. If he pays each taxpayer four times more than the difference between what he collected and what they owed, then he is returning 400 percent of his profits. And if he begins his giving by disbursing half of his savings, then he is going to end up poor” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 592).  Regardless of whether or not we have ever defrauded anyone, just imagine what it would be like literally to give away half of what we have to care for the poor. Uncomfortable, yes?  Yet Jesus blesses this very transformation in Zacchaeus.

These are not just big gifts from a little man, these are the joyful sacrifices made by a man who has decided to follow Jesus.  Luke doesn’t tell us that Zacchaeus joins the entourage headed to Jerusalem, but it is surely conceivable that he goes with Christ – all the way.  The little man has opened his home and his heart to the Christ.  In joy, he has given big gifts and, in the process, found his way.  In the end he receives the biggest gift of all – the gift of life abundant and eternal.  “Today salvation has come to this house…”  In our searching, in our giving, in all our living, may we come know that same salvation.  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.