Note from Pastor Gregory (6/28/2017)

I don’t usually preach from Paul’s letters and I definitely don’t usually preach from the book of Romans. Luckily one of my professors John B. Cobb Jr. (read anything and everything he’s written! It’s all so good!) wrote a commentary on the book of Romans to help us pastors and scholars decipher what was going on in the early Jesus movement.

Dr. Cobb makes an interesting point about the ways in which these letters have traditionally been interpreted. The word Paul uses for “faith” in Greek is pistis which is more accurately translated as “faithfulness.” Paul is calling us into faithfulness to God through Jesus. In Jesus we see the image of the invisible God, the image of a poor Palestinian who is faithful to God’s call on our lives to love all beings.

This Sunday we will explore the lectionary passage from Romans 6:12-23 where Paul speaks to our new found freedom in our faithfulness to the Christ. This freedom might at first seem restrictive and not actually freedom at all (often falling into a legalistic debate about right living) but I hope to explore the ways in which the freedom Paul says can be found in God through faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings is truly liberatory.

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God we are Free at Last!

Pastor Gregory

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Peace Now! (5/29/16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “You love your kids.”

Neighbor: “Yep! And you?”

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

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

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

Neighbor: “I guess you like Bernie?”

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

Car Attendant: “Toyota Yaris!”

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

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

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

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

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

Note from Pastor Rick (5/25/2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Rick

 

A Word on the Word (July 13, 2014)

meditation_table.fwA WORD ON THE WORD

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Texts: Psalm 119:105-114; Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

 

“It’s the law!” How many times have we heard or read these explanatory words? “But why do I have to? Because it’s the law, the rules, the way we do things” and, worst of all, “because I said so.” How many of us can actually say we love the law? Find it curious, maybe fascinating, something to explore, tolerate, take for granted, perhaps respect, but not love. We have had some lawyers among our number that might have responded differently, but for the most part, the law is not something we love.

So how is it that the Psalmist has actually penned this ancient love song to the law? In the middle of this longest Psalm, longest chapter in the Bible, the Psalmist exclaims, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long” (Psalm 119:97). Can I get an “Amen?” Yes, I didn’t think so.

As with last week, I started out with something entirely different in mind for this week’s sermon. But in Bible study on Tuesday it became clear that this set of lectionary texts was focused on the ancient law of God. Not just the Psalm but Isaiah, Matthew and Romans all seemed to have something to say about God’s law.

Many Christians, especially Protestant Christians, have turned their backs on the law. Following Luther, Paul and Jesus before, we have emphasized faith and grace over the law, at least in our theologizing and our teaching. The law has come to represent something deadly. It is faith that brings life through God’s grace.

Think of the Jesus’ ongoing debate with some of the Pharisees. Over and over he challenges their allegiance to the law at the expense of their love and care for God’s people. The Pharisee stands on the temple steps, lifts his arms to heaven and proclaims loudly, “Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.” “Look at me! I adhere to the letter of the law. Aren’t I something?” (See Luke 18:9-14). The rich young ruler comes to Jesus in search of eternal life. “Keep the law,” Jesus says. The man puffs up and says, “Why, I’ve done that all my life” (See Matthew 19:16-21).

How many of us would want to change places with either of these characters? Again, I didn’t think so. Oh, it would be nice to be a wealthy, prestigious member of the community, a well-respected representative of the law-abiding citizenry. We wouldn’t mind if people looked up to us with a little envy. And, God knows, we don’t want any trouble.

Now it may be that I am being somewhat disingenuous here, making a sort of straw figure of the law. I’m sure it’s crossed your mind that the sermon is not titled “A Word on the Law.” It is true that Psalm 119 is a great hymn of love for the law, but law here has several synonyms – “decrees,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “statutes” and “words” or “word” are all used among its 176 verses. This is not a hymn to legalism. The Psalmist is making a claim for a living law, a word that dwells deep in the heart and shapes all of life:

Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
Incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.
I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.
You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word.

As Isaiah proclaims, this is a law or word that comes from God and will not return to God unfulfilled, unlived. “…my word…that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In the end, these are songs about a life-giving relationship.

Following Isaiah and the Psalmist, we need to remember Jesus’ claim that he had come to fulfill the law not to do away with it (See Matthew 5:17). Jesus’ dispute with some of the Pharisees was not over the law itself, but with how they interpreted and kept it. It was the legalism at the expense of human need that offended him. God’s law was meant to be life-giving not a stifling burden. Jesus rejoiced that the rich young ruler had kept the law faithfully and was only sorrowed by his failure to follow God’s way to an inevitable end of compassionate sharing.

You see when the law is embraced as a way of life what is found is the living word. In the series of classes that Corinna Guerrero led for us, she helped us to see the Bible as canon – a list of books considered to be authoritative scripture by a particular religious community; scripture – texts that are sacred or central to our religious belief and expression; and word of God – this law that lives in our hearts and shapes our very being in faithfulness to the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.

Indeed the word of God is partly words – thousands of them, gathered together in this volume we call the Bible. For our Jewish forebears, the first five books are called the books of the law, the crucial record and rule of a people called to live in faithfulness and righteousness, that is, in right relationship, to God who guides them in ways of right living with each other and all creation. It is these words that the Psalmist celebrates and Christ fulfills. These words, this sacred text, this holy record shows us what it means to dwell on earth as beloved children of God.

But we also know what it’s like to struggle with these words when they call us to be other than we want to be in a given moment. We know what it’s like to sit in the sanctuary and think, “Dear Lord, I am so grateful that I am not like her. I’ve got it together and she really is kind of pathetic.” Or we know what it’s like to fall on our knees, crying out because we’ve made such a mess of things. We know what the rich young ruler felt like when he couldn’t let go of the thing that most interfered with his relationship to God – money, stuff, prestige, glamour, sex, substance, learning – you name it.

It’s tough to live by the law, to commit to the rules, to obey the statutes, to follow the word. Truth is, we can’t do it alone. That’s one of our hang-ups, we are too often intent on making it on our own. Oh, we have amazing capacity to be law-abiding citizens, obedient children, word-following disciples, but we get out there on our own and we lose our way. Before we know it, we’ve wandered off, chasing some dream or other that will never give us what God’s word promises to the faithful. Or we’ve become so fearful of life’s wonderful diversity and the challenges that come with that that we’ve hidden ourselves behind walls of legalism and sheltered ourselves in bunkers of life-denying security.

Rather than trusting the word of God, too many of us have armed ourselves with guns and weapons of mass destruction. We have constructed barricades at borders and across neighborhoods to keep “them” out.   We have turned our backs on the hungry and the homeless, the poor and disoriented, deeming them unworthy. We have given ourselves over to the siren call of consumerism. We have worshipped our “stuff” and proclaimed that the “one with the most toys wins.”

OK, I apologize for the rant. As you know by now, I am upset and angry, sad and disillusioned by the sometimes hate-filled debate over the refugee children at our borders. It brings up for me the many ways that some Christians in the USA have abandoned the word of God. It may be legal, under US law, to return desperate children from our borders to the poverty, chaos and violence which they fled, but it does not square with God’s law. Over and over the Hebrew Scriptures enjoin the people to care for the widows, orphans and strangers in the land. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed for sins of sexuality. Their great crime was inhospitality to strangers who came to them dependent on that hospitality for their survival. On a smaller, but perhaps more significant scale, when the children came to Jesus and the disciples wanted to send them away, Jesus was very clear, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). Surely the richest nation on earth can find a way and a place for these refugee children.

In my venting it is not my intention to chastise you personally. I know there are good hearts here, people who long to live in daily communion with God, who have given much in service to God’s in-breaking reign, who follow faithfully the way as disciples of Jesus, who look to the Spirit to move them in the direction of the holy. But good as we may be, there is always room to grow, to understand better God’s way, to walk more closely with Jesus, to open ourselves to the Spirit’s freshening breeze. We rest here for a while but there is work to be done.

I think that is what the Psalmist is about in this love song to the law. He is saying there is a living word to which we may give ourselves that will empower us, enrich us and lead us in paths of righteousness. When people got hung up on the words and began to battle over legalistic interpretations, God said, “Enough” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

John also writes that “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Some have taken this to mean that Christ supersedes the law but I think that is a misreading. This is the way that Christ fulfills the law, he comes to suffuse it with the grace and truth that God intended when God first gave it. This is what the Psalmist saw when he sang his song of love for God’s law.

God flings the seed of God’s holy word with reckless abandon. God is extravagant in giving, eventually giving God’s very self in the person of Jesus Christ. How is the soil of our souls prepared to receive such a gift? What have we done, what are we doing to get ready? One could do much worse than follow the Psalmist’s counsel, “Happy are those who…delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:1-3).

In that fertile soil, we may yet be part of God’s abundant life on this good earth, sharing generously with sisters and brothers of every sort that with which we have been so richly blessed. Let us learn to embrace the living law, God’s enlivening and empowering word, and commit ourselves to Christ’s witness of grace and truth.

Amen.