“New Year” Thanks

Three candlesA “new year” has begun, at least in the church tradition of kicking off the congregation’s educational emphases sometime early in September. Thanks to everyone who helped make our “Rally Day” a good one, with worship, Sunday School for children and youth and our final cookout of the season on the patio.

And speaking of thanks, Sunday we also took time to celebrate Eleanor and Hugh Satterlee for everything they do around here. They are both volunteers extraordinaire! We are a better community and this is a better place for all they share with such uncomplaining grace and dedication. In the litany in their honor, we prayed that we might “find in them inspiration and example to do likewise.” Indeed, that is our hope. A congregation runs on the generous participation of all its people, working, playing and worshiping together.

This Sunday, as “we make the road by walking,” we step back from the earliest creation stories in order to let Jesus enter the scene. Our focus text will be John 1:1-18, traditionally a Christmas reading. Here we use it to link Jesus the Christ to those beings or forces, like Wisdom and the Spirit, that were with God even before the beginning. We celebrate that in Jesus the Word, the meaning of God’s creative activity, became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth. God has, is and will continue to shape us and all creation according to holy principles and purposes. Will we choose to cooperate in this vast creative enterprise?

Please join us at 10:00 AM for worship and Sunday School and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation, in which we will begin consideration of another Brian McLaren book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis and a Revolution of Hope, as part of our participation in Campaign Nonviolence in Palo Alto. Bring someone to share the day with you.

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.

Pastor Rick  

On Becoming Human (September 14, 2014)

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-25; Psalm 8; Mark 3:1-6

Where did you come from? Who do you look like? These are two common questions that point toward what it means to be human. Why do I say this? Because these are questions about connection. In this second creation story from Genesis, the key focus is relationship. First there is the very intimate creation of “man” through the very breath of God. Then there is God’s recognition that, wonderful as the relationship between God and man might be, it was not enough.

“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Dennis Olson points out that “A ‘helper’ in the Old Testament is not a subordinate but one who may be an equal or sometimes even a superior to the one who is being helped. In fact, God is often called a ‘helper’ to humans in need (Psalm 10:14; 54:4) (Dennis Olson, “Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24, October 4, 2009,”workingpreacher.org). Adam is delighted with the result of God’s creative endeavor – this one who is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. The connection is blessed. It is a sacred bond, linking what God has made to be linked.

What are our roots? To whom do we belong? The answers to these questions are fundamental indicators of our humanity. Dennis Olson again argues that “God’s discovery [that ‘It’s not good that the man should be alone’] highlights what is fundamental to human nature and human flourishing: humans are social creatures who thrive in close and intimate relationships with others.” He continues, “Genesis 2 reminds us of God’s original intention and desire for humans – to find in at least one other person a bond of love that runs so deeply and so intimately that we never feel alone” (Olson, op. cit.). So in a strong sense you might argue that, at least as far as being human is concerned, in the beginning was the relationship, the connection, the helpmate.

As we have shared, stories about where we come from and who we look like are stories about our people, our families, our communities, our base connections. As a middle class white boy, I used to grieve the thought that I had no ethnic identity. Of course, that is part of the curse of being a privileged member of the dominant culture. As friends from other cultures shared rich tales of their ethnic origins, food, customs, people, I felt left out. Sometime later in life I came to realize that there is ethnic identity for white folk and that I had cultural roots in the American South. In particular, some of those roots are Cajun. There was delight in claiming that ethnicity for myself. No wonder I am drawn to southern culture, especially the stories, and the rich, spicy cuisine of New Orleans.

I know these discoveries do not tell my whole story, nor do they make me any better or worse than anyone else. They have given me a degree of joy and comfort in believing that I might fit in, might belong somewhere. But I am sure we are also aware of the pitfalls of ethnic and culture identity. There is so much to be celebrated on the one hand, but on the other hand these markers have been used to exclude, devalue, demonize, hate and engage in violence and war. The risk is that I will elevate me and denigrate you. If you’re not like me, if you don’t come from where I come from, don’t look like my kind, then I might judge you as an outsider, less, one who doesn’t belong. The trap is that I might de-humanize you.

Our focus this week is “Alive in the Story of Creation: Being Human.” In Bible study on Tuesday, Thelma suggested that the sermon title might be, “Becoming Human.” I decided to take her up on that suggestion. There is a sense in which we are born human but sometimes we lose our way and have to find the means to become human again or reclaim our God-given humanity.

We talk about human being and sometimes we even call ourselves human beings. What does it mean to be human? Wikipedia says “Modern humans (Homo sapiens or Homo sapiens sapiens) are the only extant members of the hominin clade, a branch of great apes characterized by erect posture and bipedal locomotion; manual dexterity and increased tool use; and a general trend toward larger, more complex brains and societies.” Other dictionaries just say “people” or “us.”

Genesis says we are dust, “…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” As Dennis Olson puts it, “God gets ‘down and dirty’ with creation, forming the human (adam) from the land or clay (adamah). God performs CPR on the newly formed lump of clay, breathing into the dirt-creature’s nostrils ‘the breath of life’” (Olson, op. cit.). Or more elegantly, remember last week we read in James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation,” that in his loneliness, God thought that he would “make me a man” and so

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;

Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.

I imagine most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as dirt or as apes, for that matter. In fact, that seems to be the distinguishing factor, doesn’t it, the human dilemma – we think. It may be what makes us different from the rest of creation and, indeed, what links us most closely to God. “I think therefore I am”? Maybe we won’t explore that philosophical tradition this morning. But thinking and choosing are apparently what link us to the image and likeness of God.

Ah, the choosing. As we will see, it is the capacity that gets us into trouble. It is our freedom and our downfall. We are given the tree of life to partake of freely but we are told the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is taboo. Well isn’t part of being human the desire to challenge every taboo? We risk the goodness of life that has been given us to be able to see as God sees, to know what God knows. The trouble is we can neither contain nor control what God sees and knows. Everything gets out of hand when we try to play God.

Brian McLaren writes that “The Tree of Life is a beautiful image—suggesting health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness…But, “then he says, “consider this possibility: the second tree could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil. Do you see the danger? God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative. But our judging is frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory, and devaluing. So when we judge, we inevitably misjudge” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, p. 9). Judging is God’s job, not something that humans are made for or are good at.

There is this sense that we have been given all we need to be human, to carry the image and likeness of God who gave us the breath of life and delights in our being. The Psalmist says God has made us a little lower than the angels or than God’s own being, just slightly less than divine, but as wonderful as Hamlet recounts, even in his depressed state. Would that we might be satisfied with what we have been given and embrace our human being. But we want more.

The irony is that in reaching for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we actually sacrifice our humanity. God’s judging is “wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative” but ours is much too often “ignorant, biased, retaliatory, and devaluing.” Do you hear that distinction between God and human frailty? Does that sound like you and me, like the trouble in which we too frequently find ourselves? I suppose we could call this “just being human” but it isn’t the sort of human God made us and meant us to be.

The work of becoming human is to challenge, perhaps over and over again, those places and times in our living when we have abandoned our humanity, that is, our capacity for love and compassion, our ability to care for one another and all creation, our fundamental need for relationship and desire to walk with God – abandoned our humanity in the service of self-centered attempts to be more than we were made to be. We want to be superhuman and we inevitably fail. Becoming human means learning to live as the beings God made us to be, alive to the spirit of God that dwells within us, nothing more and nothing less.

Where did you come from? You came from God and, in time, that’s where you will return. Who do you look like? You’re made in the image and likeness of the living God. If we could whole-heartedly claim this heritage, if we could identify fully with our common life in the one family of God, if we could stuff ourselves with the fruit of the tree of life, what a different world this would be. In the cause of becoming human in the richest, fullest sense, shall we give it a try? Amen.

What I Did this Summer

Mixon MusesWell, what did you do on your summer vacation? It’s the classic question every child is asked by teachers and friends as a new school year is ramping up. Depending on what you did and perhaps your age, personality type and who is asking, you may be  eager or reluctant to answer that question. Some summers are crammed with exciting activity and good fun, some drag on in endless boredom, some simply mean more of the same grinding poverty and lack of opportunity. Summer has many meanings, depending on your location – geographically but also socially.

For me, I’m glad you asked because I’m eager to talk about my summer. Part of the joy of summer is living in paradise. The sunny days and moderate temperatures seem unending. Even with the drought there are many shady trees and lovely gardens to enjoy. We had some good times as a congregation, including cook outs, international visitors, baseball and worship in the park. It was a good summer here at FBCPA.

My summer was highlighted by the two weeks in August when I took off for Tahoe and points north. I missed my annual continuing education week with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. The pictures posted online made it as appealing as ever, so I regret not being there. However, my alternative was to spend a week at Lake Tahoe (not bad, eh?) at annual summer retreat of Companions on the Inner Way. Companions is a program in spirituality developed in the early 1980s by the late  Morton Kelsey and Professor Roy Fairchild of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Initially the program was core to the SFTS Center for Christian Spiritual Disciplines (now the Program for Christian Spirituality in which I am doing my sabbatical work.)

In the early 1990s Companions became an independent program providing spiritual retreats twice a year. It is now a ministry of Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. The pastor of that congregation and the liturgist for Companions is Jeff Gaines, my former Spiritual Director. The summer retreats are held at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The setting is magical as most of the meeting rooms look out on the multi-hued blue waters of the Lake. In the course of the week, we experienced thunder and lightning, clouds and sunshine, whitecaps and mirror stillness on the lake.  Surely God is in that place (though, of course, we know that God is present in every place!) What a treat each afternoon to sit on a bench on the lakefront reading and contemplating as I read and just staring at the lake.

The high point of this elevated experience was the teaching of Brian McLaren. Brian, a prolific writer, is one of the originators of the “Emergent Church” movement. This is a phenomenon with which Pastor Tripp familiarized us during his tenure here. In my nutshell, the Emergent or Emerging Church, is an attempt by contemporary Christians to find ways to be and do church that will speak the “Good News” authentically and meaningfully in the context in which we find ourselves. In this view, church may look  like nothing we’re familiar with, yet it still communicates Christ’s vision of the constantly in-breaking reign of God on earth.

The theme for the week was taken from the writings of the Medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, who prayed that “God would save me from God.” The flyer for the retreat enticed us with this message. “These words, adapted from Meister Eckhart, reflect a struggle that many of us feel: a tension between our conventional images of God, our language for God, our formulations about God on the one hand and our intuitions of, experiences with, and hopes about God on the other. Rather than trying to suppress this tension, we will explore it as an arena for spiritual growth and creative spiritual exploration.”

We will come back to this material in the days ahead. Brian, a brilliant public theologian, former pastor and English professor, challenged us daily to reconsider our view of God, of Christ, of Bible, of faith. His concern is for a living God, a living Christ, a living Word, a living people. His latest book is We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. Among other things, this book provides a creative alternative to the lectionary with 52 chapters of scripture texts, commentary and reflection by Brian. Beginning with the first Sunday in September, we will use this alternate to provide worship themes for the coming year. The book is divided into four large themes – Alive in the Story of Creation; Alive in the Adventure of Jesus; Alive in a Global Uprising; and Alive in the Spirit of God.

As you can see “aliveness” is key to Brian’s thinking and I hope it is to ours well. What would it mean to live out our existence as FBCPA fully alive? Together we can make this enterprise key to our common life in the year ahead. What being alive means is not prescribed. Our aliveness is unique to us, to be explored, tested, worked out and celebrated. As you can probably tell, I am excited about the prospects of this journey, of making our own “road” as we walk it together. We will order some copies of Brian’s book to have available to those who wanted read about the adventure that lies ahead.

I’m sure this is more than enough for now. As always, I am glad to be with each of you on this faith journey.

Pastor Rick

You will see elsewhere information about “Campaign Nonviolence,” organized nationally by Pace e Bene and locally by MultiFaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Their literature says, “Campaign Nonviolence is a long‐term movement to build a culture of peace by mainstreaming active nonviolence and by joining the enduring, nonviolent struggle to abolish war, end poverty, stop the destruction of the earth, and challenge all violence. Campaign Nonviolence invites you to practice nonviolence toward yourself, toward all others, and toward the world!”