It Is Good To Be Here (2/26/2017)

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Texts:  Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

It is good to be here. I feel that nearly every time I enter this place. I feel it even more strongly on Sunday mornings when we gather for worship and community. This is a place where good people gather to celebrate, learn about, and share what it means to be God’s people. This is a place where disciples gather to consider what it means to care for one another, our neighbors, and the earth, to serve and spread the good news of Jesus Christ, to deepen and broaden spiritual interconnectivity. This is also a place where the wider community gathers to teach, to sing, to dance, to eat, to heal, to work for peace and justice. On most days, this is a good place to be. The catch is: is it enough, is it ever enough?

Moses goes up on the mountain to encounter the Holy One in a more intimate manner than most people ever conceive of. He takes the time to sit patiently on that mountainside until God is ready to speak; then he takes the risk of entering into the glorious mystery, the shekinah, the cloud of unknowing, trusting that God has a word for him that he needs to hear, not just for himself, but for his people. How many of us would be willing to go that far for an encounter with the holy, for instruction on what it means to be both God’s person and God’s people, for a vision of righteousness and right-relationship?

Continue reading It Is Good To Be Here (2/26/2017)

Up and Down (2/7/2016)

Pastor Tripp and Children enact transfigurationA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 7. 2016

Text: Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

Remember:

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill
And he marched them down again,
And when you’re up, you’re up.
And when you’re down, you’re down,
And when you’re only half-way up,
You’re neither up nor down?

We could get quite carried away around the campfire, singing this ditty faster and faster until collapsing in exhausted laughter.

But the truth is, that’s the way the road goes, that’s the rhythm of life – up and down, up and down. The old spiritual proclaims,

Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Oh yes, Lord.
But still my soul is heav’nly bound,
Oh yes, Lord.

Or if you prefer a more challenging version,

Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground.
Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Whichever route you choose, the up and down of it is inescapable.

I think that is the vital rhythm we find in today’s texts. Even though the second story about the healing of the epileptic boy is optional in the lectionary, I think it is essential that we link them. Jesus, Peter, James and John, the rest of the disciples, the crowd, the father, the son are all up and down at one point or another. Sharon Ringe insists, “The glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated” (Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 457).

To begin with, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray. There are times in this gospel and the others when Jesus goes off, alone, to pray. We understand this as a customary and important practice for him. We believe these times of prayer kept him centered and focused. They linked him to God and they energized him for the ministry in which he was engaged. This time he chose three leaders from among his followers to join him, to share his experience and learn from it.

Up, up, high on the mountain they went where the wind blew chill and the stars drew near. These three were among the disciples who had gained or desired special attention from Jesus, including elevated positions in the heavenly realm. Here they were chosen to share with him in his time of spiritual renewal. They must have felt very special. Only by the time they got all the way up the mountain, they were cold and tired. They just didn’t seem to have his stamina. They huddled together against the cold and drifted off to sleep.

If it hadn’t been for the dazzling light they might have missed the whole thing. The light shattered the darkness, disturbing their slumber. As they rubbed the sleep from their eyes, there was Jesus, shining before them, deep in discussion with Moses and Elijah. There was no doubt in their minds who his conversation partners were. The talk was about what lay ahead for Jesus as he “set his face toward Jerusalem,” about what it meant to hold to God’s law and proclaim God’s word, about what it would cost and what it would yield to walk God’s way.

Peter, James and John didn’t hear nor could they grasp the whole of the conversation. Still, they were amazed at what they saw and heard. As they watched the great lawgiver and the great prophet vanish from the scene, Peter blurted out, “’Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ —not knowing what he said.” That last part is crucial. He spoke before he thought. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful just to stay up here on the mountain with Jesus, basking in the beautiful glow of his transfigured face, “lost in wonder, love, and praise”?

Have you ever had an experience like that, something that was so wonderful, so fulfilling, that you just didn’t want to give it up, something so wonderful that you wanted to stay there forever? It doesn’t have to be spiritual in a religious sense. Maybe it was romantic, or pleasurable, or playful, or powerful, or compelling. You just knew that there was something in you that wanted to stay right there on that particular “mountain top.”

And why not? It sounds wonderful. Why not stay in that ecstatic state as long as possible, forever, if you could? What did Peter not know? What did he fail to understand? Suddenly the scene changes, the wind whips up, a thick, dark cloud covers the crest, enveloping them all, as lightning crackles and thunder rumbles. “This is my Son, my Beloved, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him, listen to Jesus. Isn’t this what they’d been doing all along? Apparently not closely enough. If they’d been listening, they would have had a better understanding of the significance of the conversation with Moses and Elijah. They would have had a better sense of what lay ahead for them all. They would have known that what goes up, must come down.

And sure enough, down they came, down off the mountain, right into the midst of a teeming crowd of seeking, needy people. At the end of Tony Kushner’s great dramatic fantasy, Angels in America, a key character, Prior Walter, offers these words as a sort of benediction,

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

After angelic visitations and amazing visions of heaven, Prior Walter comes to this sort of quixotic conclusion that there is “great work” that lies ahead and now is the time to begin. Listen to him – you are fabulous creatures, blessed beings. And what is that blessing? More life, always more life. This is the great work –the creating, establishing, nurturing, sustaining of life. We’ve seen the heavenly vision and now it is time to get busy, making it real on earth as it is in heaven.

Fresh off the mountain, Luke brings Jesus and his disciples face to face with a father desperate for the healing of his only son. The text says the father shouts at them in a most undignified manner, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” Can you hear the ache, the terror, the desperation in that cry? Imagine if it was someone you loved who was suffering so. This father had begged the disciples to do something, but they couldn’t pull it off, at least, not on this day. Jesus had given them power and authority and they had done some pretty amazing things during their travels from Galilee, but not today. Impatient and frustrated, Jesus scolds them for their lack of faith, for their failure to remember that they are “fabulous creatures,” blessed to bring life, before he heals the boy, restoring him, whole, to his father.

I wonder if there isn’t a sort of desperation in Jesus’ own frustration and impatience. He knows he doesn’t have much longer with them, much more time to teach them, to train them to do the great work that they are called to do on his behalf, in service of God’s Beloved Community. Once more they are left in amazement at the greatness of God and the miracles of the Messiah. But is it enough for them, or us, to stand there, gaping in wonder?

The reality is that down here, down in the valley, rolling across the plain, are the cries of those in need – in need of healing, in need of hope, in need of hospitality, crying for comfort, seeking for guidance, longing for love. Maybe we aren’t going miraculously to heal an epileptic boy, but there is so much work to be done to bring in God’s Beloved Community that each of us can find some way to contribute.

The reason that we shouldn’t separate these two stories is precisely because they tell us what to listen for. Marcus Borg argues that the two great and unique qualities of Jesus are his close connection with God and his compassion. Here we see exactly that – up on the mountain in deep and affecting prayer, down in that valley overflowing with compassion for those in need.

Heidi Neumark writes, “…living high up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of transfiguration…[It was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level” (Heidi Neumark, quoted by Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 456). That’s why we can’t sit on the mountain, Peter, wonderful as that might seem. There is great work to be done. Listen to Jesus. He’ll lead you in the right direction. All you have to do is follow. Listen to him. Take time to be with God, make time to be with your neighbors in need. Up and down, up and down. With his help and God’s grace, you will find the way. Amen.

Mountaintop Experiences (March 2, 2014)

sermonsTexts: Matthew 17:1-9; Matthew 6:24-34

Here we are up on the mountaintop with Jesus.  He seems to spend a lot of time in places like this.  Sometimes it seems a little selfish when there is still so much need down below.  Still, it’s pretty exciting that he’s brought James and John and me along this time.  I guess I feel a little selfish when it comes to having alone time with him.  It’s always a hassle down there with so many crowded around, making their demands, crying their woes, laying their troubles on him.  It’s a wonder he has anything left to give by the end of the day.  Maybe that’s why he comes away on these secret journeys into the hills and mountains, usually by himself.  He must be looking for someplace he can just sit, clear his mind, maybe get a little sleep.  We can’t really begrudge him some alone time, can we?

But, my, this seems like a lonely, desolate place.  The night is dark and the wind is howling.  That wind is bone-chilling and it looks like a storm is brewing.  I’m glad we’re all together and I’m glad he’s not alone up here tonight.  I can tell you if I was up here alone, I’d down-right scared. It’s pretty risky to be up here at all this late.  I wonder what it is he’s looking for.  What is it that draws him to this mountaintop on a night like this?

Don’t you imagine something like this must have been running through Peter’s mind that night on the mountaintop with James and John and Jesus?  Even with the Teacher present, he must have felt uneasy – for himself and for the others, if we know anything about Peter’s tendencies to take on responsibility.  This beginning may not seem like anything we usually think of when we imagine mountaintop experiences.

Mountaintop experiences tend be either the literally breath-taking trips we’ve made up into real mountains with their dizzying heights and sweeping vistas, or perhaps those experiences that lift us to new insights and understanding of the world, of one another, of ourselves, of life, of God.  I’ve talked before on Transfiguration Sunday of the experience I had on the summit of Mount Boulder in Idaho, not only of the glorious view but also of the momentary view of glory.  I can also remember the wondrous vacation we took driving through the Alps.    What about you?  Have you had something you would consider a mountaintop experience, something about which you might be willing to share a few words with us this morning?

So, as wonderful as our experiences were, imagine what happened to Peter that night on the mountain.  Not only was he in a small, intimate group with Jesus, which must have been amazing in itself, he was about to see things that he would never forget, things that would change his life forever.  That’s what happens when you enter into the cloud of Presence, the Shekinah, the aura of the Holy, those thin places where you encounter the Living God.  That’s what Jesus was doing up on that mountaintop.  He was seeking an audience with God.  He was practicing a discipline of opening himself to the Holy Presence that was inevitably transforming.  In this mountaintop experience, Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah the prototypical prophet, walked and talked with him, and the very voice of God declared that he was “beloved.”

By the time the vision began to fade poor Peter and James and John were huddled on the ground, terrified.  Well, wouldn’t you have been?  The experience had to have been overwhelming!  I picked the picture for the bulletin cover because I wanted something to portray a little of this mountaintop experience as a crackling bolt of lightning strikes the mountain and the thunder echoes through the valley below.

So in many ways we know something of mountaintop experiences.  We also know we can’t hang onto them, nor can we repeat or re-create them.   Each is unique, once in a life time.  It may shake us up, elevate us, transform us, but it comes to an end.  A loving hand, a gentle touch, shakes us awake, brings us back to earth, points to reality beyond the mystical experience.  “No need to be afraid.”  It’s the gentle voice of the Beloved of God.  “No need for fear.  I am with you – always, whatever happens, whatever we encounter along the way, wherever God leads us – even to the ends of the earth and fulfillment of time.”  What does one do with such words of assurance?  Are they not even more powerful, more life-changing than the miraculous vision of the mountaintop experience?  God was onto something, something each of us needs to hear, to understand, to practice – “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Listen to him.  Hear Jesus.  Follow his lead.  Walk his way.  As we move toward Lent, that time of prayerful preparation for the great celebration of the Resurrection, this seems like pretty good advice.  What if we were to adopt a Lenten practice of listening to Jesus, of opening our ears and eyes, our hearts and minds to what Jesus might be saying to us as we journey with him once more to Jerusalem, to the inevitable conclusion of his earthly ministry on a Roman cross?  Might we, too, experience some of the transformation that remade Peter from a terrified fisherman, completely out of his element up on a bare mountaintop in the middle of a stormy night and an abject failure who betrayed God’s Beloved, the very one who loved him so, into the rock of faith on which the church is built, powerful preacher, healer, witness to the way and martyr for his ultimate commitment to that same Beloved one.  If such a one as Peter be transformed, might not we?

But this is not just about personal transformation.  It’s also about community transformation.  It was a small group up on the mountain – none of them alone.  Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, willing to listen to him and follow him, there he is right in the middle of their life together, binding them into one, then drawing them out, luring them on, touching their terror and urging them not to be afraid.  When God urged Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus, I wonder if they thought back to the Sermon on the Mount, another mountaintop experience.  When he touched them with tender reassurance, I wonder if they thought back to those words that Kathy read for us.

“Don’t be afraid, friends.  Don’t worry about the future.  Look at the wildflowers.  Look at the birds.  See how God cares for them.  See how they rest assured in God’s hand.  God is present on the mountain top and God is present in the everyday.”  Listen to him.  “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  Of course, we need food and shelter and the other necessities of life but nothing material will give us the life that God urges us to choose, the way of the commonwealth of God.  In next week’s gospel reading Jesus will tell the Tempter that human beings cannot live by bread alone.  Listen to him.  We need something more.  We need every word that issues from the mouth of the Holy in order to be complete.  Listen to him.  “…strive first for the [commonwealth] of God and [its] righteousness, and all these things – everything you really need – will be given to you as well.”  Well, there’s a promise you can live on.

I don’t want to press this point too hard, but we have some challenges that lie ahead for us as a congregation.  We have some important decisions to make about our life together.  We need to be in careful and prayerful discernment about those challenges, our options and our beliefs.  We must be considerate about not rushing to judgment about the possibilities or about one another.  Above all, we must be open to God’s leading.  We are God’s people and this is God’s church.  Some of what we have to consider is risky and may be anxiety producing, even fearful.

As we move into this time of discernment, I hope and pray that we will feel the gentle hand of Jesus on our individual and collective shoulders, urging us to not to be afraid, to walk this way without anxiety, listening to Jesus and looking to God for guidance.  Whatever decisions we make, God will still inhabit our mountain tops and our every day.  Jesus will still lead the way and the Spirit will still move in our midst.  Possibilities of transformation lie before us if we open ourselves to them.  We can journey on and, when we need to, we can rest, assured that there is more light, more love, more life ahead, even for us.  Amen.