Finding Our Place (4/17/2016)

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Text: Genesis 1:26-2:4; Psalm 8

Today let’s move directly to the heart of the conflict. How do we find our place in the order of creation? For a very long time – perhaps, since the beginning – humans have heard “dominion,” “subdue,” “control” as invitation, if not mandate, to treat the earth as we will. Increasingly this perspective has been called into question. Many have come to see stewardship as our rightful place in the order of creation while others have argued that we are of the earth and not over it. The gifts with which God has graced human being are part of an intricate web of related being in which we take a significant but not superior place.

In Bible study Tuesday Phil suggested that without human intervention the rest of creation would have gotten along just fine. Perhaps human being has had a largely deleterious effect on creation from the beginning, given the struggle we have had to find our place within inherent limitations. Phil answered his own question by also suggesting that we might have been given a certain sort of intelligence that, when operative, has functioned in creative ways to advance the creative process and enhance life on the planet.

However, this theological debate is a different one than the current debate over the effects of human being on the environment. Some will argue that the place of domination that humans have occupied for too long threatens to destroy the earth. Others will argue that earth was created for humankind, for the comfort, convenience and well-being of humans as the obviously superior creatures. Some see the results of human encroachment on the natural order and the pollution of the environment as the inevitable result of human progress, which is privileged above all other dimensions of the natural order. Some see creation as infinitely adaptable or believe that human ingenuity is capable of repairing whatever damage we do to the earth.

Patrick Allitt, historian and author of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, which is our Senior Connections Book Group book for this month, argues that, though humans have done real damage to the earth, we have also learned to take steps to correct much of the damage done. As science, technology, and economic prosperity have developed in the past couple of centuries, there have been serious environmental consequences; at the same time, humans have developed a concern for correcting our mistakes and a will to do what is necessary to right our wrongs. He argues, “I make no secret of the fact that I consider industrial civilization a superb accomplishment, very much worth protecting and improving. Industrialization has harmed the environment while improving life for almost everyone. We have the resources to remedy this harm (Patrick Allitt, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, p. 13). Allitt believes that environmental alarmists have done a disservice to their cause by overstating their case and inciting fear instead of leading people to take seriously their concerns in ways that would lead to fixing problems and cultivating environmental well-being.

By contrast, poet, essayist and farmer, Wendell Berry, argues that “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it” (Wendell BerryThe Long-Legged House).   He says, “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” These are complicated concerns and complex arguments. We will not resolve this debate this morning or any time soon.

It’s my belief that, as Christians, we have work to do on our theological and spiritual perspectives before we even come to the political, scientific and cultural arguments. Finding our place in the God’s created order will help us understand how we see and approach environmental concerns.

I am sure that this morning’s passage, over time, has helped to anchor the belief systems of those who privilege human being and see our place as dominating the rest of creation. In addition, there is the religious perspective that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” In this hallowed perspective, there is no need to care for the planet as God will one day gather the select into heaven and to hell with the rest.  In either case, it is all about human being and little about the rest of creation.

It is difficult to ignore that a text, written by human beings, is likely to privilege human being by seeing it as unique and special. We are created in the image and likeness of God. God has made us a “little lower than God and crowned us with glory and honor.” It’s hard to be humble when we start with this understanding of our place. Of course, it doesn’t help that the English translations on which we have depended are grounded in the tradition of kingly power and rule. This language itself has helped to shape worldviews. Who hasn’t harbored a dream of being king or queen of all they see? Most of us, at one time or another, have dreamed of ruling, at least, our own backyard.

By contrast, Berry argues that “The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it” (Wendell Berry, What Are People For?) In this sense, there may be a sovereign but it is not us.

If we take the notion of dominion, of being made in God’s image and likeness, to mean service then our attitude toward the rest of creation will be altered radically. Then Nan Merrill is on to something when she writes, “O Love, my Beloved, how powerful is Your Name in all the earth!” (Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying) rather than “O Lord, our Sovereign…”

In fact, Jesus seems to challenge this notion of sovereignty altogether, at least in any dominating sense. Jesus appears to find his place as the servant of all and even implies that serving is critical to God’s nature. With great irony, he pictures the “Kingdom of God” as a place that welcomes the least of these, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the outcast, the marginalized, and the stigmatized. Hardly a royal assemblage!

In his commentary on Genesis 1, Walter Brueggemann argues that “The text is revolutionary. It presents an inverted view of God, not as the one who reigns by fiat and remoteness, but as the one who governs by gracious self-giving.” He continues, “It also presents an inverted view of humanness. This man and woman are not the chattel and servants of God, but the agents of God to whom much is given and of whom much is expected” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Genesis, p. 33). So, we may be elevated but that also means we are challenged and blessed with co-creative responsibility

Another Christian scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, John Holbert, writes, “In Genesis 2:15 we read ‘YHWH God took the ‘adam and placed it in the garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it.’’ In light of this mandate, he argues, “…we are partners with God and with God’s creation, not masters, not dominators, not even stewards. We are finally no more important in God’s world than are the ravens, the lions, the mountain goats, even the ostriches…” Still, he concludes, ”The  image of servant of God’s world has the possibility to make us new creatures, helping us see our rightful place as God’s servants for the world. In short, we need conversion to a new way of thinking about the creation, the environment. The world, the cosmos, is not our oyster. Rather it is God’s pearl, and we are assigned the twin tasks of serving this pearl and protecting it from all abuse, especially abuse from ourselves” (John C. Holbert, “A Needed Climate Crisis Conversion: Reflections on Genesis 1:1-2:4a,” June 5, 2014, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com).

Last week we spoke of the interconnection of all creation, even the ways that God is interwoven into all being, including human being. In commenting on Psalm 8, Elizabeth Webb writes, “All creatures, including human beings, live in interdependence with one another. As much as we have dominion over creation, we are also dependent upon it for our well-being. Our sovereignty can never mean that we place ourselves over-against the creation. As ‘lords’ over creation, we are in fact servants of it” (Elizabeth Webb, “Commentary on Psalm 8, June 15, 2014,” workingpreacher.org). And in today’s Words of Preparation, Maya Angelou declares, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”

If, among other things, God is love, as we often claim, then to be created in the image and likeness of God is to be infused thoroughly with love as our source of power, as the shaping spirit of our humanity, as the place where we live and move and have our being. It seems to me that before we enter into any battles over climate change or fossil fuels or pollution or endangered species or the fate of the planet, we need to make sure we find our place as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. At the same time, we need to see and understand that the God in whose image and likeness we are made is a lover and not a king. God is self-giving and invites us to that same sort of self-giving love and concern for all that is. Human being is meant to be compassionate and caring. Rather than subdue we are to serve. Rather than rule we are meant to revel in the wonder of it all. Rather than dominate we are meant to delight in the goodness of what that God has created. To find our place is to look around, carefully, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel what God has made and blessed and called “very good” and then to say “yes!” to it all. Amen.

Visionary Living (2/21/2016)

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Text:  Genesis 28:10-19a

Have you ever set out on a long journey with a sense of urgency about reaching your destination as soon as possible? You drove farther than you had planned, pressing onward through the day. Suddenly you realized the sun had set, darkness was gathering all around you, and you were in the middle of nowhere. You could feel exhaustion inhabiting body, mind and spirit. With a sigh of relief, you settled for the first seedy motel you encountered and eventually settled into fitful sleep.

This where we find Jacob in today’s text. Admittedly, he’s a fugitive, fleeing his brother’s wrath, so the urgency of his journey is a life or death matter. And, of course, he’s walking in an area where there are no motels to be found. He’s gone as far as he can manage. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, cradling his head on the nearest stone and drifts into fitful sleep. Is it his exhaustion that troubles his slumber? the hard ground and his stone pillow? the uncertainty of his future? guilt for his past? It may well be that all this and more came into play.

Jacob’s is an important story in the history of the Hebrew people but he is not a very likable character. Some want to claim for him the archetypal role of the Trickster and there might be merit to that, but it is not hard to see that he is a scoundrel. You know the story, in conspiracy with his mother, Rebekah, he cheats his poor brother, Esau, of his birthright and his father’s blessing, both crucial to establishing his patriarchal rights as the first-born son. Whether or not Esau was a dolt or just naively trusting is irrelevant to the wickedness of his brother – and, yes, his own mother.

Esau has had enough. He’s out to get his brother. Thinking quickly, Rebekah hatches an elaborate plot for Jacob to get out of town. He should head across country to Haran, the land of her family and find a wife there among her people, lest he find himself wed to one of these awful Canaanite women as his brother was. Jacob doesn’t hesitate. He hits the road for Haran and here we find him, in the dead of the night, sleeping under the stars.

The vision he dreams, the theophany he encounters, lights up the night with angelic messengers descending and ascending a ladder or ramp that reaches all the way to heaven with God holding forth above it all. This was hardly what Jacob expected, a marked man, lying on the hard cold ground. Suddenly, the Holy One, the God of his forebears stands beside him, making promises in line with the covenant God had established with his ancestors – a great line of heirs who will bless the earth. Then, “I will be with you – yes, you, Jacob. I will keep you and I will bring you home.” Jacob can hardly believe his ears.

Is this amazing grace? It surely seems so to me. Jacob has certainly not earned any favor with God. In fact, this fleeing scoundrel has had little to do with God or religion at all. He has been totally wrapped in feathering his own nest. His very name means “striver,” “usurper” or “schemer.” His whole existence had been given over to getting ahead. When he speaks to old Isaac about the Holy One, he refers to Yahweh as “your God” (Genesis 27:20). Wouldn’t he be shocked by God’s showing up, even in his dreams.
But then there is that nagging question Barbara Brown Taylor raises. “By day I can outfox questions like these,” questions that challenge conscience, questions about how I treat my sisters and brothers, questions like “who am I?” and “what am I doing here?” questions that call forth the Holy One. Looking at her own daily routine, she describes,“…racing from one appointment to the next, answering e­mails with red exclamation points by them, taking the suddenly sick dog to the vet, rummaging through the freezer for something to thaw for supper.  By day, I am a servant of the urgent.  Nothing important has a chance with me…But in the middle of the night…I am a captive audience.”

In his own little world – self-absorbed and self-serving – Jacob has made neither time nor space for God. So, God comes to him, even if God has to wait till the middle of the night to capture Jacob’s attention. In learning to walk in the dark, we run the risk of encountering God in a deeper, more intense way than we ever imagined possible. Some days it‘s the only time we’re free of the clutter that threatens to bury us. It’s the only time God can get our attention – middle of the night, lying on the hard cold ground, open and vulnerable in our sleep and in our dreams.

The problem with Jacob, as it may be with us, he only skims the surface of the encounter. Visionary living remains beyond him. Walter Brueggemann writes that “The element in the narrative that surprises Jacob and seems incredible to us is…the wonder, mystery, and shock that this God should be present in such a decisive way to this exiled one. The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 242).

However, instead of falling on his knees in repentance and joy, Jacob actually tries to bargain with God. Verses 20-22 of Genesis 28 record this response from Jacob, “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.’”

He almost embraces what God is offering, but then, just to be certain, he adds that little “if” to his vow. “If you really do what you say you will, then I will take you as my God, worshipping and serving you.” Maybe it’s too much too soon. Maybe this is a far as Jacob can go in this encounter. There is no question that our spiritual journey is a life journey. There is always more to learn, more to let go of, more God to encounter and give ourselves to. Jacob is on more than one journey this night. He may be on his way to Haran but he is also on his way to heaven, as heaven draws nearer to earth. He is being drawn in the Spirit’s tether, lured by divine love into an ever closer walk with God. He has a lot yet to learn but he will never be the same, having seen this vision on this night.

Maren Tirabassi has been blogging prayer poems on the parable of the Prodigal Son for this Lenten season. They are both moving and challenging. Yesterday she posted this one, which I think gives insight into Jacob and, perhaps, to us.

Lenten reflection — recidivism
by Maren C. Tirabassi
February 20, 2016

How many times do we expect
the prodigal to return?

What about the fourth time,
when we are out of rings and robes
and the only sandals
in the house
already have feet in them?

What about the seventh time,
a little gray in the hair,
everyone’s hair,
and there is not so much
as fatted turnip left in the kitchen?

Our older child does not need
to say, “I told you so.”
It hovers in the air,
but still we are not left alone.

God, look the prodigal comes again.
We always lean our hearts
into that moment —
the one with the big hug,
and we believe every time …

the way you always do.

These are word of grace for the Prodigal, for Jacob, for you and me and all the world. Jacob is touched by his night vision but he is not healed. He will go on his merry way, creating more mischief before he comes to his senses and decides to head home. “Maybe,” he recalls, “there is something to that old covenant I made with God at Bethel. Maybe God really has been with me and kept me and now is calling me home. Maybe it’s time to pay up.”

You remember how the story ends – Jacob trembling at the Jabbok, having done everything he can imagine to cover his behind – emissaries and gifts to placate his brother, dividing up his goods and his entourage, hoping at least some will survive, Here he comes, bowing and scraping, as Esau approaches with 400 men. Here he stands before his brother,  his greatest fear for, lo, these many years. Now he is at Esau’s mercy. Will he live or die?

And, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound of brothers weeping in forgiveness and love. Visionary living. Oh Jacob saw the vision, he dreamed the dream that night at Bethel, but it took a life time for the vision to be realized, for the healing to occur, for the promise to be fulfilled. Learning to walk in the dark opens us to dreams and night musings, to visions of what might yet be when we trust God to walk with us, keep us close and lead us home. Amen.

God’s In-Between People (February 8, 2015)

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Texts: Ezekiel 34; Matthew 9:35-36

 My friend, Rachel Maguire, posted yesterday on Facebook the abstract and outline of her dissertation, just submitted to her committee in Canada. Rachel, who pastors Immanuel Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, has struggled over several years now to complete her dissertation to the satisfaction of a faculty who, unfortunately, have been wary of her vision. With the support of many friends and advocates, she has finally finished the work, which she believes will be accepted by the committee. I mention this because her work is directly related to the topic of today’s sermon.

Call it coincidence, synchronicity or the work of the Spirit, I was surprised to read how her work coincided with what Brian McLaren has written in this week’s chapter of We Make the Road by Walking and what I had put down as the title for today’s Reflection on the Word. The title of her monumental work – well over 500 pages with footnotes and appendices – is The Dangerously Divine Gift: A Biblical Theology of Power. As you can see, that is exactly what Ezekiel is wrestling with in his book of prophecy and Jesus addresses with the multitudes – the gift and abuse of power.

McLaren begins his chapter on “Jesus and the Multitudes” by describing the all-too-familiar divide between the haves and the have nots. We do not need to do voluminous research to recognize this reality. McLaren writes of “the elites” who are “the 1 to 3 to 5 percent at the top that have and hoard the most money, weapons, power, influence, and opportunities” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 106-109). He says, “They make the rules and usually rig the game to protect their interests.” In commenting on our text, Walter Brueggemann puts it more powerfully: “There is no doubt that our society is now governed by an oligarchy of the wealthy who not only control all the branches of government but who have established an alliance between corporate power and government oversight to the great benefit of the wealthy and the powerful. Thus tax law, regulatory agencies and judicial decisions are all administered by the ‘fat and strong’ to their own benefit and to the neglect of the ‘hungry sheep’ who are without resources” (Walter Brueggemann, “Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24: Failed Kings and the Good Shepherd,” Huff Post Religion, The Blog, 11-16-2011, huffingtonpost.com).

In stark contrast, McLaren says that “Down at the bottom, we find the masses – commonly called ‘the multitudes’ in the gospels. They provide cheap labor in the system run by the elites. They work with little pay, little security, little prestige, and little notice.   They live in geographically distant regions or socially distant slums.” Does this sound like a familiar scenario? We may not know intimately either end of this polarity but surely we have heard of it. It is not news to know that a very few people hold the bulk of wealth and power in the world and the vast majority of people live with little of the planet’s resources. This is the unjust system that Ezekiel confronted in his prophecy and Jesus addressed when he saw the crowds, the multitudes, the masses and had compassion on them, proclaiming to them a new order, the in-breaking beloved community of God.

So where do we fit as what I am calling today “God’s In-between People.” In describing the purpose of her dissertation, Rachel writes, “Propelled by a liberationist commitment, this work first stands in solidarity with earth’s marginalized majorities, and then focuses its lens on the social location of ‘middle agents.’” She says, “In the global economic/power structure, middle agents (the eighteen percent) live and work in the space between the two percent who own over half the world and the eighty percent who earn less than ten dollars per day.” That’s largely us, folks, the “middle agents,” “in-between people.”

McLaren describes us as “those loyal allies who function as mediators between the few above them and the many below them.” He says, “…they make a little more money than the masses and they, and they live in hope that they or their children can climb up the pyramid, closer to the elites. But,” the reality is, “those above them don’t want too much competition from below, so they make a pyramid that isn’t too easy to climb.” Now does the picture seem more complete, the story more familiar?

In her dissertation, Rachel seeks to construct a theology in which, “staying close to the gospel (particularly Luke and Mark)…an ethic of hospitality is developed – one that rearranges power structures, moving practitioners personally, communally, and societally toward a world of shared power.” In the end she sees that “The story of power closes with a reading of apocalypse as the falling away of parasitic and violent structures, and the emergence of new creation on earth.” This is all very close to what Ezekiel is trying to reveal to his audience and Jesus to his.

In Bible study last Tuesday, we spent the entire session working our way through this one chapter of Ezekiel. To me the passages that Kathy and Dan read this morning are as beautiful and moving as any in scripture. We have prayed and sung today about a God who cares for us as a tender shepherd. These verses expand on that most beloved Psalm – 23. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice. I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing…”

But as with many of the Psalms, this chapter has a message of harsh and challenging judgment for those who have held power and abused it at the expense of the multitudes. On Tuesday, we tried to imagine what it would be like for any of us to stand in the halls of Congress and proclaim, “Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of [the United States] who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”

Regardless of your political affiliation, is this really too harsh a word for our time? If we look closely and intently at the political and economic disparities in our own country, as well as our nation’s role in global disparities, doesn’t old Ezekiel have a word for us? Isn’t Jesus speaking the hard realities of our own time when he sides with the poor and outcast, marginalized and downtrodden, when he focuses his attention time and time again on the multitudes? “…he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Ezekiel and Jesus, Rachel Maguire and Brian McLaren understand power as a “dangerously divine gift,” especially in the hands of human beings who may use it sinfully for their own selfish ends or who may use it creatively as God intended, for the well-being of all creation. In the beloved community of God, power is not to be held onto, it is to be exercised in service to all. So power is both privilege and responsibility. To be granted power is to accept the role of serving the welfare of creation. As we have noted before, when God gave human beings dominion over creation, God was inviting human beings to share in God’s love and care for all God had made. That is a far cry from having and hoarding the most of anything. Ezekiel says the day will come when the “strong and fat” will be fed “justice.” I wonder how that meal will go down for some?

To be God’s people, to be God’s in-between people. McLaren says, in general, people “hope” they can move “up the pyramid.” The problem with this hope is that it perpetuates the system. It says that the greatest goal in life is to become rich and powerful. So we keep climbing up the pyramid and we keep getting pushed back by those at the top who are not willing to share what they have. It’s a never-ending cycle; in the end it only serves a status quo in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle, as with the ancient Sisyphus, are left pushing up the side of the pyramid an increasingly heavy boulder that continually roles back on top of them. It is a grim cycle that seems to know nothing of God’s great desire for the restoration of the goodness of creation in which each and all know the blessings of abundant life.

To be God’s people, to be God’s in-between people is to “feed on justice,” to proclaim and live into that covenant of peace and well-being God makes with all who turn to God, falling into God’s tender care. To be God’s in-between people is to answer Christ’s call by letting go of everything that creates a barrier between us and God, by looking with compassion toward our sisters and brothers in the “multitudes,” and by working to bring God’s beloved community on earth in the here and now. To be God’s in-between people is to act as Rachel’s “middle agents,” standing ”in solidarity with earth’s marginalized majorities” and committing ourselves to “an ethic of hospitality…that rearranges power structures, moving practitioners personally, communally, and societally toward a world of shared power,” a “new creation on earth.” To be God’s in-between people is to see what Brian McLaren sees in today’s Words of Preparation, that “there are always multitudes at the bottom being marginalized, scapegoated, shunned, ignored, and forgotten by elites at the top. And there are always those in the middle torn between the two. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to stand with the multitudes, even if doing so means being marginalized, criticized, and misunderstood right along with them.”

As people in the middle, which way will we turn? Will we continue to push the boulder up the pyramid, hoping some day to balance it on top, or will we commit ourselves to being God’s in-between people, people who walk this earth in love and compassion, care for creation, working for justice, peace and the well-being of all? The choice is ours. May we be open to walking in God’s way. Savior like a shepherd lead us. Amen.

Hope of the World (November 23, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 15:4-13

 

It seems that today’s worship service is, of necessity, a hybrid. To begin with it is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. As one liturgical year draws to a close and we anticipate a new one in the season of Advent, it seems appropriate to recognize and celebrate the fulfillment of the Christhood in life of the child whose birth we will soon recognize and celebrate. The story comes full circle and begins again. The little boy soon to be born once more ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God in glory.

And of course it is the season of the great US holiday, Thanksgiving, with its dual emphasis on family togetherness and conspicuous consumption. Surely we must sing either “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” or “We Gather Together,” along with other songs of thankfulness for God’s blessings. Before facing “Black Friday and its aftermath, we will gather around tables groaning with the abundance of the feast. We will share the things for which we are grateful before eating ourselves into a stupor and falling asleep before televised football games or seasonal spectaculars.

Many congregations plan their annual stewardship drives to culminate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the generous spirit the season evokes. We are no exception.   Today we have asked you to bring your pledges of support so that we might budget responsibly for the ministries of First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, in the coming year. Laura and I and others have asked and will continue to urge you to give generously in the spirit of gratitude for all that with which you have been blessed. As I have said once already this season, I am not embarrassed to ask you to give to support the budget because I believe in the ministries of this church and I believe in your witness as part of God’s beloved community. This congregation – that is, us – matters in this community and in the larger world as we worship, learn, care and serve together.

Then we have been on this journey with Brian McLaren, trying to understand how “we make the road by walking.” Because we need to move on to Advent next week, there were two chapters of the book and six wonderful scripture texts to consider for this week. If you’re not feeling a little overwhelmed by all this, you can rest assured that I am. However, undaunted by the overabundance of possibilities, we plunge ahead. Perhaps we will find a convergence of all the themes laid out before us for today. It is not unlike the rich array of dishes laid out for us at Friday’s Gratitude potluck, which, in the end, made a meal!

So let’s pick up where we left off last week. If you remember, our “Song for Sending Out” was the great hymn by Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World.” This is one of my favorites and its words remained with me through the week, especially its opening phrase, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.”

I suppose on Christ the King Sunday the tendency is to think of Christ enthroned in glory. I know that when I googled images there was a rich collection of paintings, carvings and mosaics of the triumphant Christ, crowned in splendor. Still, there is something compelling in the Harkness image of Christ who, because of his compassion, is the hope of the world. We can glory in Christ ascendant. We can sing wholeheartedly the hymns to the Christ who reigns with God in heaven: “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne…” But how well do we understand this God who takes on human form and dwells among us out of concern for the well-being of creation?

It’s a challenging paradox, this God of glory who is also the Christ of great compassion. Hear Harkness’s prayerful words once more:

Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.
Save us, your people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

In the midst of abundance and celebration, do these words speak to you? Fearful hearts, conflict rent, consuming passion, false hopes and aims? Does any of that sound familiar? I think both Isaiah and Paul heard something of Harkness’s longing in today’s texts.

Paul is writing to a people by “conflict rent.” There was a battle going on among the Christ followers in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. If it was not an all out dispute between who was in and who was out, there was certainly tension between who was more and less favored. We may not be caught up in that particular conflict, but how many such battles can we identify in our world today and how many of them affect our own lives, at least indirectly? Can you name a few?

Paul says that this is the “hope” we find in the scriptures, that “…the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant[s us] to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to explain how the Jewish Messiah is also the Christ who welcomes all, Gentiles included, from before the beginning of time. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike find their hope. Hope of the world – not just part of the world, not just some of the people, not just aspects of creation – it’s the whole wide world.

Perhaps Paul’s vision was well summarized in this morning’s special music:

Many members, one body; many hearts, one hope, one faith in You.

            And when we disagree teach our eyes to see that we are one

in the family of faith, the family of faith, joined by the miracle of grace.

 

We are brothers, we are sisters…children of the one Creator of all.

            So as we live and grow, help us always know, that we are one

in the family of faith…

Compassion does that to you. It makes you aware of all that’s around you. It helps you hear the hopes and fears, the dreams and challenges of others. It give you access to the hearts and minds of everyone you encounter, if you will let it function in yourself. This is one of the crucial identifying characteristics of the Christ, the capacity for compassion, to feel as the others feel, to see as the others see, to share, ironically, in a common humanity. Christ sees and understands our fearful hearts, our conflicts, consuming passions, false hopes and aims. Christ also shares our dreams and joys, our laughter and play, our communion with one another and all creation. Compassion offers a uniting vision of what the world might yet be.

Isaiah’s vision is somewhat different but perhaps still related. You may also remember from last week that I began my sermon with several “texts of terror” – Joshua’s instruction to obliterate the seven tribes that occupied Canaan and a couple of the more violent passages from the Psalms. These verses from the second chapter of Isaiah come as a kind of oasis in the grim landscape of destruction promised for a disobedient, unfaithful people. Most of the first chapter of Isaiah and much of what follows today’s text is a prophecy of doom, related to all those empires that have and will conquer Israel and Judah. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:10-15).

Not exactly an encouraging word, is it? But here is the hope in these first verses of chapter 2. Walter Brueggemann points out a rhythm to Isaiah. He says, “For all its harshness, the tradition of Isaiah characteristically moves to hope” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 1-39, p. 24). He affirms that “There is hope, but it is deeply postsuffering hope. Yahweh’s wrath is deep and serious and will be outlasted only by Yahweh’s resolve to bring Jerusalem to its true and proper function as a place of justice. The poet looks historical threat full in the face but holds out for the holy purpose of Jerusalem…” (op. cit., p. 22). The day will come when the nations will stream to God’s holy mountain, seeking instruction in peace and justice: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life:
still let your Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.

I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on the glitter of the holiday season. There is much to celebrate and much for which we can be grateful. Still, even in a time of celebration, it is important to remember that there is much to concern us in the world around us and in our own lives. There is still trouble all over this world and parties and shopping and even celebratory worship services will not make it less so. Maybe in this season we can celebrate and be grateful for the Hope of the World. Maybe we can be touched by the Christ of great compassion. Maybe we can share the hopes and fears, the joys and concerns of all those we encounter. Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with one another as one family of faith. Maybe we can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Maybe can pledge ourselves not to learn war anymore. Maybe we can heal the earth’s wounds and end all bitter strife.

Hope of the world, who by your cross did save us
from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt:
we render back the love your mercy gave us;
take now our lives and use them as you will.  Amen.

 

Blame it on the Snake (September 28, 2014)

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

 

Texts: Genesis 3:1-13; Psalm 32; Philippians 2:1-13

I’m pretty sure all of us have had some experience with parenting. Either we’ve been a parent or we’ve been parented. That is surely one frame we can use to consider today’s text about Adam and Eve in the garden. I imagine it is a frame we have heard or used before. Doesn’t the story sound like more than one familiar family drama that focuses on trust and obedience, freedom and disruption? Dad says, “No,” and Junior asks, “Why?” Mom suggests caution and her little one says, “I can take care of myself.” How many times have you either used or heard the expression, “It’s for your own good”? And how many times have you disbelieved, felt the need to test, struggled to let yourself or your children spread wings and reach for freedom?

The grounding place in this story is still goodness. Remember we have spent the last three weeks considering the goodness of creation and the goodness of the generous Creator who not only has blessed us with all we need but has invited us to share in the care and nurture of that creation.

Today, continuing in Genesis, we consider the drama of desire. Desire – “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen; a sense of longing or hoping for a person, object, or outcome.” Among the many synonyms are “aspiring, craving, hunger, wanting, yearning, longing, wishing for, desperate for, coveting, sought after, must-have.” What do you know of desire? Do any of those terms ring a bell? Can you tell us anything about your own experience with desire?

In thinking of the drama of desire, I was reminded of two great American plays – Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m sure there are many others but these two classics dramas name desire in their titles. In Desire Under the Elms, we see a family torn apart by desire for land and heritage, for power and control, for lust and love. The desire for what is forbidden and what is ultimately beyond the characters’ control leads to death of the infant heir and destruction of both individuals and the family.

In Streetcar, the characters and setting are different but the dramatic outlines are similar. Blanche’s desire for what is gone and cannot be recovered leads her through a slow descent into madness. Her own desire to forget through alcohol and sex are crucial to her undoing. The desire of the other characters, with differing motives, to tear away her veil of unreality and expose her to the harshness of their own world results in painful suffering and loss for each of them. Desire is a dangerous, even deadly, thing.

Today’s text tells the classic tale of an overreaching desire for what can neither be contained nor controlled. The result is a disaster of epic proportions. It foreshadows the trajectory of human existence. In some sense, it becomes the story of all our lives. “I’ve seen you eyeing that forbidden tree over there,” says the snake. “I know God said, ‘This restriction is for your own good,’ but aren’t you just a little curious? Surely one small bite won’t hurt you.” Such lovely temptation. It didn’t take a lot convincing for them to give into their desire.

Now before we go any further, it is important to acknowledge that desire is not all bad. Brian McLaren writes of our text, “…there’s nothing wrong with desire. The question is, whose desires are you imitating?” This is the crucial question that this story raises and addresses. We all develop and move through this world through imitation. We begin to learn through observation and mimicking from the very first moments of life. So which desires and whose desires we imitate are vital to the kind of human being we become. McLaren continues, “To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires…to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice – to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals – is to choose the path of death.”

It is the age-old choice set before people of every age and time. Will we choose life or death? The choice is not always an easy one. In our limited human understanding we as often choose the fruit from the forbidden tree as we do that from the tree of the life. We think, if we just had a little more power or control or knowledge or money or land or armaments, we could eliminate all our anxiety and fear and live securely on this earth. The problem is it was never meant to be that way. In our reaching for that little bit more, we fall off the ladder or out of the tree or over the cliff or into constant conflict and war. The effects are disastrous and the consequences deadly.

In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann tells us that “the God announced in this story is not a petty god who jealously guards holy secrets or who eagerly punishes the disobedient.” He argues that “This story is, rather, the anguished discernment that there is something about life which remains hidden and inscrutable and which will not be trampled on by human power or knowledge. There are secrets about the human heart and the human community which must be honored, bowed before, and not exposed. That is because the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself. It has not been put at the disposal of human ingenuity and human imagination.” Brueggemann asks, “So what is urged, if not knowledge? Ignorance? No, not ignorance but trust.”

We may not be quick to embrace such an affirmation. It may be challenging for us – especially with our relative privilege and affluence – to acknowledge that we are creatures, that we have inherent limits, that the exercise of our God-given freedom comes with limiting responsibilities or consequences. We have an insatiable curiosity, an unbridled desire to know. Can we then live with limits? Being such mature and sophisticated adults, can we embrace old-fashioned, child-like qualities like obedience and trust?

More than one commentator argues that this is not a text to explain the origins of sin, sex, evil or death. As you will have noted, no mention is made of “the Fall” or “Original Sin.” What this is is a story about obedience and trust. As we say here, with some regularity, God is “the More.” There is knowledge, wisdom and understanding in the Godhead that will always be “above our pay grade.” The snake challenges the humans to test that faith statement. “It won’t kill you. In fact, it might open your eyes enough that you’ll be just like God.” And you know, the snake was partly right. It didn’t kill them and it did open their eyes, but it didn’t make them gods. They were still human beings, only now their lives were distorted by what they could see and feel. Their eyes were opened alright, opened to shame and guilt. Their desire cost them the beauty and the innocence of Paradise. All they needed to do was trust and obey, but that desire to be little gods, or maybe just like God the Creator, was more than they could resist.

Brueggemann’s comment makes me think of the story I’ve told before from the television series, Joan of Arcadia. Remember, Joan is the teen-aged girl living in a mythical suburb in southern California. Out of the blue, God appears to her with tasks for her to do in her family, school and community. Each week God appears in a different form – a classmate, a small girl on the playground, cafeteria worker, homeless man on the street, trash collector, etc. and the task provides the drama for that week’s episode. Eventually Joan comes to the place where she asks God for a glimpse of the future. For just a moment she wants to see into the future, to see what God sees. After much dissuasion, God gives in and grants her desire. The revelatory scene takes place in a church sanctuary. In the moment of revealing, we see a kind of psychedelic light show on the small screen. When it is over, we find Joan lying on the floor, unconscious. Even the tiniest glimpse of what God sees and knows is more than a human can handle. There are mysteries far beyond our comprehension nor were we made to unravel them, regardless of the depth of our desire.

When we come to question the eternal goodness of the garden, when we turn our backs to Paradise, we find that the consequences are harsh and certain. But this God we serve is still, above all, gracious, tender-hearted, characterized by steadfast love. In spite of grasping desires, even with our turning away, and far beyond our insistence that we can do it ourselves, there is the waiting One, waiting for us to come to our senses, to see the wisdom of obedience and trust, to recognize that some limits really are for our own good, to come home to the garden. Whether or not our disobedience deserves the death penalty, we encounter a God who does not operate that way, whose love for creation and for us is also beyond our understanding. Indeed, in the fullness of time and need, that same creating, loving God took on human form to draw us close and show us the way back to the life intended for us from the beginning of the world. That life is still rooted in goodness and is always available to us.

Today’s Words of Preparation reiterate McLaren’s belief, “To be alive is to be mindful that we live in the drama of desire. We can imitate one another’s competitive desires, and so be driven to fear, rivalry, judging, conflict, and killing. Or we can imitate God’s generous desires…to create, bless, help, serve, care for, save, and enjoy. At this moment, let us turn toward God, not as rivals who want to play God, but as image bearers who want to imitate and reflect God.” Amen.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? (October 5, 2014)

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Texts: Genesis 4:1-17; Psalm 51; James 4:1-8

The drama continues. Now that Adam and Eve are settled outside the garden, it is time for them to be fruitful and multiply. “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel.” Two boys, the first family to feature two sons, something that will become a recurring motif in the biblical literature. The naming rituals seem to support the patriarchal notion of preference for the first born. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The names are suggestive: ‘Cain’ derives from qanah, ‘to get, to create.’   The name is given as praise to God. Cain is celebrated and well thought of. As first-born, he embodies future possibility. Abel’s name is ‘vapor, nothingness,’ without the possibility of life. In the text, Abel is dismissed while Cain is an embodiment of vitality” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis, p. 56).

In fact, Abel appears only briefly in this tale and is gone. Cain is the character that challenges us to consider once more what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Abel, indeed, vanishes and we are left to deal with the Cain in each us.

When we read this story in Bible study, I think all of us had a first impulse to ask the question I’m sure many have asked before us, “Why in the world does God favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s?” Is there something missing from the text or from our understanding of the Ancient Near East that would explain the preference?

Perhaps it says something about an ancient feud between farmers and herdsman. Harold Kushner writes of scholars who have argued this. “The nomadic shepherds thought that the farmers were wicked people for trying to claim some of God’s earth as their private domain, and then violating Mother Earth with their sharp iron plows and tools instead of waiting for it to yield its bounty as shepherds did” (Harold Kushner, “Cain and Abel: Is There Enough Love to Go Around?” in How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, p. 121).

In Bible study we wondered if there was something in blood versus grain that was more valuable in the ancient sacrificial system. There are others texts that seem to support this. So God would automatically favor Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s because blood is more valuable than produce.

Is there a subtle challenge from the very beginning to the notion that the first son should be privileged over the second? More than once God seems to lift up a younger sibling to inherit the mantle of authority and move the story along. At least the younger son plays an important role in instructing us in how God expects us to live in this world.

However, nearly every commentator agrees that there is no real answer to this question nor is the text interested in addressing it. As frustrating as it may be for some of us, we are not privy to every aspect of the mind of God. God’s reasoning and motivation are above our pay grade. If it is any help, one can certainly argue that this ancient story is just that – a story, a myth, a parable that is not meant to explain everything as it attempts to explain something. At least we can accept that God’s seemingly arbitrary choice is necessary to the story.

One angle of address is to see in these old stories an evolution of our understanding of God. The ancients told tales that were useful in their time and circumstance for making sense of the world around them. Brian McLaren tells us that “For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation…storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed – just as our theories change” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation,  p. 20).

So what is at stake in this story? As I mentioned earlier, it is the challenge of being fully human in the best since of the word, of learning to live into the image and likeness of God. Sibling rivalry is as old as siblings. Here is evidence in this story of the first siblings. If you want more, I refer you to Harold Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be? – especially the chapter on Cain and Abel.

It is also interesting to note that the Bible’s first mention of sin is in this story. Kushner argues that the sin found here is, in fact, original sin. He writes, “As I read the biblical narrative, the Original Sin is not disobedience nor is it lust. The Original Sin that affects virtually every one of us and leads to other, worse sins is the belief that there is not enough love to go around, and therefore when someone else is loved, he or she is stealing that love from us” (op. cit., p. 123).

Look at the situation this story addresses. There is nothing here to indicate that God does not love Cain. Think of our own stories. I’m sure each of us could tell a tale or two about a time when a parent or a teacher or a loved one made a fuss about a sibling or a fellow student or a child or friend and we felt left out. Your brother got a blue ribbon or your sister got straight A’s. Your child is demanding or attracting all your spouse’s attention. The job you really wanted went to someone else. Your best friend decided to hang out with another. I’m sure you can add to the list.

But it’s a big leap to go from disappointment to believing you are no longer loved or appreciated or valued. In this Cain comes across as vain and self-centered. He was very angry and downcast. “Why?” God asks. “Do you really think it’s all about you?” (Well, isn’t that a big piece of the problem? Surely he thinks that.) “Can’t you be happy for your brother? If you do well, will you not be accepted? Your day will come, my child.”

And then the ominous warning, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” For the first time, sin rears its ugly head. Sin is lurking. It desires to get you in its clutches. Beware if you do not let go of your self-absorption and animosity. They could destroy you.

This is such a powerful statement of our agency. There are choices we can make as we walk this earth. We can choose to give in to the wily tug of sin – all that separates us from our true selves, from our brothers and sister and, ultimately, from God – or we can choose to do well, to live into the love and compassion, responsibility and grace that God blew into the core of our being at creation.

Of course it’s not easy to fulfill our creation in the image and likeness of God. The pull of sin is powerful. We are constantly challenged by that sense that, if we don’t get just what we want, we are not loved, appreciated, accepted. Despite God’s clear warning, Cain gives into his anger and hurt feelings. His self-centered pouting grows dark and ugly, eventually overwhelming him. He lures his brother out to the field and kills him.

“Where is your brother, Cain?” Once again God comes to his creature with a crucial question and once gain the creature lies, trying to keep God in the dark. “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Well, yes, Cain. Yes you are. How could you not know that?” This is central to what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God – loving and caring for your brother and your sister, your friend and neighbor, your colleague and the stranger in the land. “That’s the way I made you. Relationship and community is what it’s all about, Cain.”

It’s not at all clear how much Cain understands by the end of the story. He’s knows he’s messed up but he is still focused on saving his own skin. “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Sadly, we never hear him say “I’m sorry.” He never really repents. He sees that he’s been convicted and he even entertains the thought that he might be guilty. But where is his remorse? Where are his tears for the loss of his brother? It is painful to observe that he doesn’t fully comprehend what it will mean to live the rest of his life without his brother. As someone who has lost his brother, I have to say that Cain’s callousness is incomprehensible to me. The pain is palpable and does not recede easily.

Perhaps that is why God does not exact the expected judgment. No life for a life here. Again, as with his parents, God foregoes the death penalty. Love rules the day. There is enough love to go around, Cain, even for you who has murdered his own brother. However, this is no sappy, sentimental love. By the time he has spent his days wandering the earth, perhaps he will have come to his senses and realized the enormity of his sin. In the end, he may have wished for a quick execution rather than a lifetime to reflect on what he had done. The irony of God’s loving forgiveness is that it gives Cain a lifetime to learn what was expected of him and to understand what he has lost.

As we come to God’s welcome table, let us remember what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Let us look to our capacity for caring about life beyond our own, to our ability to let go of our self-centeredness, to our responsibility for brothers and sisters and all creation. God has made us for communion, to live together in peace and harmony, justice and compassion, love and community with one another, with creation and with God. Today, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday with sisters and brothers around the globe, may we see that we are all in this together. Indeed we are brothers and sisters all in the family of God and, yes, each of us a keeper, companion, sibling, lover of every other. Challenging as it may be at times, that is the role which we have been given and the life to which we have been called. Am I my brother’s keeper?

Oh, yes I am, child of God, and so are you. Amen.

God Fathers-Forth (June 15, 2014)

Gamma-ray burst photo
Gamma-ray burst 1404191 was spotted at 11 p.m. April 19 by SMU’s robotic ROTSE-IIIb telescope at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas.

GOD FATHERS-FORTH

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon

First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 15, 2014

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4

One of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe –a rare event known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) –has been spotted on camera. [The] event . . . occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago.

(Quoted from: O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.” The London Daily Mail. June 5, 2014.)

My friend, Harold Knight, who recently retired from teaching writing at SMU, posted this photo the other day on Facebook. It was attached to a blog he had written that begins, “The headline on SMU’s website reads, ‘Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.’” The blog was written in response to this photograph that purports to be an image of something that happened 12.1 billion years ago, shortly after the Big Bang. Harold wonders how the scientists know this and so do I. It’s not that we disbelieve; it is that we are lost in wonder at something that is beyond our comprehension.

Though I took an astronomy class in college, I don’t begin to understand all the implications of the Big Bang Theory or how we can make a photo of something that occurred so long ago. I don’t even know how to get the photo off my cell phone that I took yesterday. But that’s a different story.

What I do remember from “poet’s astronomy” (as it was affectionately known) is the awe of looking at the rings of Saturn from the Columbia observatory’s telescope on a cold, clear November night, a rare occurrence in that urban setting. It was breath-taking, awe-inspiring. I suppose my impulse was to sing a song or write a poem, rather than to be caught up in the math or physics or even the cosmology of the occasion. “How Great Thou Art” was the standard response to the spectacle of stars seen on summer nights in the unsullied atmosphere of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, when we sat around the campfire at Cathedral Pines, the Baptist camp.

There are scientific wonders that are beyond my comprehension and I suspect some of you may wrestle with a similar syndrome. Some of those wonders involve the vastness of the universe and some the tiniest of cells or atoms. We live in a world of wonder and sometimes we find ourselves lost in that very wonder. In light of modern science, there are those who find it difficult, if not impossible to hold a faith position, to believe in a God who creates, a Christ who redeems, a Spirit who empowers. Part of that pattern of disbelief is attributable to the insistence of some in the Christian tradition that we understand the Ancient Word that Paul read for us as science or history.

Some of our fellow Christians insist that this ancient story be taught in science and history classrooms. They seem to fear that the modern manifestations of these disciplines are challenging religious tradition and undermining the faith of their children. In fact, there is a Museum of Creation, now open to the public, near Cincinnati, Ohio, that was met with incredulity by many of us when first announced 10 years ago. Karl Giberson, who teaches science and religion, writes that “The Creation Museum in Kentucky contains, among its many exhibits, beautiful dioramas of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with dinosaurs looking over their shoulders—an impossible scene [because science has established that dinosaurs were extinct long before humans came around]…” Still, “Millions of Americans love the strange story told in the Creation Museum—young earth creationism. Polls show that about half of all Americans—and most evangelicals—accept these ideas. However,” he concludes, “young people raised to believe this story are leaving the church in droves, according to a recent Barna survey, when they discover, usually in college, just how untenable these views really are.”

I am particularly grateful for a father, who though an evangelical and biblical scholar, was neither fundamentalist nor anti-intellectual. Long ago he gave me the gift of his belief that it was no less wonderful to imagine a God who creates through an evolutionary process over aeons of time than a God who created in seven days. In, fact, he thought the intricacies of evolution might be even more wonderful.

However, instead of spreading my scientific ignorance in a seemingly unwinnable debate, I want to cast my lot today with Barbara Kingsolver, who penned this morning’s Words of Preparation. “I’m a scientist,” she says, “who thinks it wise to enter the doors of creation not with a lion-tamer’s whip and chair, but with the reverence humankind has traditionally summoned for entering a place of worship: a temple, a mosque, or a cathedral. A sacred grove, as ancient as time.” I think that is the point of this ancient tale from Genesis – to approach the phenomena of creation with reverence and with awe. Perhaps this is a gift that religion offers science. Science no more completely answers our questions about life than does religious tradition. We need both in respectful conversation if we are to have a dominion over creation that is grounded truly in love and care.

These first verses of Genesis are not science or history. They were never meant to be. They are poetry. Walter Brueggemann argues that they were not even meant to be explanatory myth. They constitute a poem, a call, a story. The story is really not about creation per se. That is, those who told it over and over and who eventually wrote it down were not present at the creation. They were not possessors of videotape or even 12 billion year old photographs. They were a people who had known slavery and oppression, uprooting and exile. They told the story to help them remember who they were and whose they were. These ancient words are the hopeful affirmation of a people under duress, reaching to the God who made them, blessed them and traveled with them – even in Egypt, even in the Wilderness, even in Babylon.

“O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!

            When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their places,
what are we mortals that you should be mindful of us,
mere human beings that you should care for us?
You have made us a little less than divine,
and crowned us with glory and honor.
You have made us rulers over all your creation…
O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8)

Somehow they were able to remember this story and sing this song in the midst of turmoil, from the depths of doubt, caught up in chaos. What did these texts teach the ancients and what do they say to us today? We have our own troubles, doubts and insecurities. Is there comfort, re-assurance, hope in this creation story for us?

In the beginning, the tale tells us there was a creative and loving Presence. God hovered over, in and around the chaos, the formless yet fecund void and darkness. Maybe it was something like digging in dirt that has never known cultivation, not hand or shovel or plow, soil rich, fertile, mysterious, unknown. There will always be this ”stuff of life” that we neither fully understand nor control. Out of that stuff, God brings forth light and all manner of geology, geography, oceanography and critters to swim and fly, crawl and walk. God gives it all shape and substance, then infuses it with the breath of life. God fathers-forth all that is.

Debbie Thomas draws a set of helpful affirmations from this story for her current situation and, perhaps, for ours. She writes that “Neither history nor science as today’s scholars understand those disciplines, the first chapter of Genesis is poetry, hymn, doxology, and myth. If we in the postmodern world struggle to see truth in those art forms, it is not because Scripture is lying. It is because our post-Enlightenment imaginations are impoverished. To call the creation story true is not to quibble with science; it is to probe deeper than any scientific endeavor can take us. It is to acknowledge who we truly are and where we really come from. It is to affirm, by faith, the reality of a good God, a good world, and a beloved humanity.

She then asks “Where do I come from?” and responds “Here’s what I’ve discovered so far:

I come from a God who sees…
I come from a world that is good…
I come from a God who makes new things…
I come from the morning and the evening, the light and the darkness…
I come from the likeness of God…
I come from a God who rests…”

Following her list, can we make similar affirmations?

A God who sees what has been created. Who pays attention. Who gives things a good, long, loving look. Who sees and knows and understands. We are not left to fend for ourselves. We are attended by a God who knows us and loves us and cares what happens to us.

A world that God has seen and has called “good” and “very good.” A world in which God delights. A world to be enjoyed, loved, cared for. A world that God blesses more than once. A world that God continues to bless today, when we allow and accept it.

A God who makes new things. An inventive, creative, even playful God. In Bible study Tuesday, Alan suggested God as a tinkerer. A God who always has a project going out in the garage. Part of the amazement at being given dominion over creation is the realization that we are invited to join in the creative process. Not only does God make us new, we are invited to work with God to make all things new. It is in the very nature of God to re-new.

There is a rhythm to life. We are not promised endless sunshine or a road that doesn’t wind. We will know peaks and valleys, good times and hard times, life and death. Through it all, we walk with a God who shines in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at midnight, a God who accompanies us all the way.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We can no more account for this than we can explain the mysteries of the universe. Yet the story affirms it. We are given a certain intelligence and freedom, a certain capacity for relationship. We are made in such a way as to live in mystic, sweet communion with our Creator.

Whether days or millennia, the story assures us that 1/7 of our lives should be given over to Sabbath. This means rest, yes, but not just that. Sabbath is a time for changing pace, stepping back, taking stock and centering ourselves in the Creator and all the ways God blesses us and cares for us, to share with God sheer delight in one another and in creation.

We praise God for the infinite variety in creation, for its diversity and its union in the Creator, for its hopes and promises of new life, for its challenges and its blessings.

Glory be to God for dappled things…
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

(From Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins)