Straight on Till Mourning (March 29, 2015)

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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Text: Luke 19:28-46 (The Message)

Who knows how to get to “Neverland”? According to J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, it is reached by flight, and Peter gives its location as being “second to the right, and straight on till morning,” but Barrie writes that Peter made up these directions to impress Wendy. In the end they find the island only because it was “out looking for them”. He says it is near the “stars of the milky way” and it is reached “always at the time of sunrise.” Walt Disney’s 1953 version of Peter Pan adds “star” to Peter’s directions: “second star to the right, and straight on till morning” and from afar, these stars depict Neverland in the distance.

I suppose it’s a stretch, but I wonder how many in that crowd the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem were looking for “Neverland”? How many were hoping that Jesus would teach them to fly away to some distant spot beyond the stress and strain of their daily life under Roman oppression? How many wanted to escape to a place among the stars, where the land would flow with milk and honey? Some of them may even have hoped for a place in which they would never have to grow up.

They shout and cheer, they wave tree branches and throw their cloaks onto the dusty road to create a sort of first century “red carpet.”

Blessed is he who comes,
the king in God’s name!
All’s well in heaven!
Glory in the high places!

How they hope that he will be the Messiah of their dreams, of their long-held expectations, the one who will lead a mighty army to drive out the Romans, put the collaborators and traitors in their place and restore the glory of Davidic rule. But Jesus is realistic enough to recognize this as a dream of “Neverland”, a place that promises wonder and magic but doesn’t exist beyond their imaginations.

How many of you think Jesus was a good student? I mean he didn’t go to school like you do or read a lot of books or have a lot of homework. His books were long scrolls written in Hebrew. They were the books of the Bible. Still, he must have been a good student. For instance, he knew well the book of Zechariah. How many of you have read Zechariah? Do you know where to find it? We had fun in Bible study last Tuesday finding Zechariah. For those of you who didn’t memorize the books of the Bible in Sunday School like I did, Zechariah is the next to the last book in the Hebrew scriptures, the Bible as Jesus would have known it – Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi – the last four books in Hebrew scripture. They were all minor prophets and nowadays we don’t spend a lot of time studying them. But Jesus must have.

He knew Zechariah 9:9-10:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As we’ve acknowledged before, this so-called “triumphal entry” into the old city is an act of guerilla theater. Jesus knows what Zechariah had written and many in the crowd would have also, but he understands the prophet’s words at a level the others do not grasp. They are dreaming of “Neverland,” he is riding on straight on till mourning. Right, I am making a play on words. They are hoping for a bright, “gettin’ up morning,” a day when all their troubles will be over and everything right with the world. Jesus knows that the one who comes riding on a donkey, a great symbol of humility, peace and nonviolence, will inevitably face mourning (with a “u”) before seeing the morning that breaks like the first morning “with God’s recreation of the new day.” He knows there will be a lot pain and suffering and death before Easter sunrise.

The crowd wants a great warrior king; Jesus is the Prince of Peace. The crowd would be happy with the destruction of their enemies; Jesus comes to save them all. The crowd wants it their way, “Give us Neverland”; Jesus offers instead the Beloved Community of God. Pilate comes riding in through the East Gate on his war horse, leading a heavily armed Roman legion; Jesus rides through the West Gate on a donkey, trailing a rag-tag crowd of peasants and children, in an act of nonviolent witness to a different way toward peace. Pilate comes to enforce the infamous Pax Romana, an uneasy peace dependent on the exercise of Roman military might; Jesus comes promising “peace the passes human understanding,” a genuine peace, grounded God’s love for the whole creation.

No wonder Jesus stops as the procession crests the hill, looking at the great city and weeping over its fate. He can see the destruction that is come, the leveling of the city and the Temple after those who trust violence rebel against the Romans. As the great apostle of nonviolent resistance, Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” Jesus knows this. The Prince of Peace, the Lord of Love sees the terrible consequences of dependence on power founded on force and violence.

But he doesn’t stop with weeping. We see him next in another act of guerilla theater. He disrupts the normal commercial routine that has grown up around corrupt religious practice in the Temple. The tradition teaches that the Temple is the very residence of God on earth, but they have fouled it. Once again, the student of the Bible proclaims the word:

“It’s written in Scripture,
My house is a house of prayer;
You have turned it into a religious bazaar.”

God’s way, the way to the Beloved Community, involves the simplest, humblest practice of prayer. Relationship with God is not dependent on or even facilitated by the religious trappings that traditions take on. Jesus understands that those trappings and their requirements often lead to further oppression of the poor and struggling. Jesus is no more interested in those ritual practices than he is in the exercise of power and might through violence. You can hear the echo of Amos, another minor prophet, rattling around in his brain as he clears the courtyard:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

Justice and peace. This is the Jesus way. He knows full-well it will cost him his life. Still he cannot find, nor will he walk, any other way. Before the week is out, we will find him pleading in the garden that his fate might not be sealed. We will witness him in monkey trials before Caiphas, the high priest, and Pilate, the Roman governor. The “high priests, religion scholars, and the leaders of the people” will have finally found a way “to get rid of him.” He will be convicted on trumped up charges and subjected to the most heinous form of execution the Romans could devise. At the end of this week, he will be buried in a borrowed tomb and the entry will be sealed with a great stone.

The way he walked leads straight on till mourning. Will it also lead to morning? We must wait to see. Only time will tell.

A Father’s Song (November 30, 2014)

Advent Candles
Advent Candles

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 1:67-79

 

“Comfort, comfort ye my people…” With these words George Frederick Handel begins his great oratorio, Messiah. As I quoted last week, the masterpiece ends with a grand chorus proclaiming “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 5:13). But long before we get to that triumphant conclusion we hear a lone voice, crying in the wilderness tender words of comfort and forgiveness, hope and salvation. The story of the Christ who reigns with glory and power begins with words of comfort and compassion

The writer of Second Isaiah, addressing his people living in exile, proclaims that their days of distress are about to come to an end, that God has forgiven them and desires to bring them home. With surpassing irony he declares, “’Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” Ah but is this reward and recompense what we might expect – harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction? No, the prophet promises, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” The word is one of restorative rather than retributive justice. God’s steadfast love surpasses all judgment.

These are beautiful words expressing lovely sentiments. But really, can we honestly claim to live with such hope, given the distress and destruction of our own existence? True, we are people of privilege with little or no thought of living in exile. We are blessed far beyond the average citizen of the world today. Still, we live with the threat of violence and terror, the rage of our sisters and brothers, the specter of poverty, the bloat of consumerism, the destruction of the planet. Our peace is uneasy. In truth, do we not live as far from the commonwealth of God as the Judeans lived from Jerusalem during their Babylonian exile?

“Comfort, O comfort…Speak tenderly…cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Don’t we sometimes long to hear such words spoken to us? Would we not like for someone, our father perhaps, to sing such a song of comfort, of tenderness, of forgiveness and restoration to us? Maybe it’s not such a stretch to hear Isaiah’s song sung on our behalf. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This is a word for you and me.

The news this week has been filled with Ferguson and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. While we may have a variety of thoughts, feelings and opinions about this matter, we cannot ignore that those who have taken to the streets, who have lashed out in anger are still our sisters and brothers, as are those who have protested peacefully, those who have had to police the protests and those who have upheld the judgment and opposed the protests altogether. How are we to respond in compassion to such a range of expression? I have no easy answer, except to remind us that, as the body of Christ, we are called to compassion, to feel with others as we also utter words and engage in works of comfort, justice, healing and peace.

Here is one father’s song. How will we receive it? “’My emotions are all over the place. I don’t know what to feel. I’m just, I’m just here. I’m empty off of what happened,’ Michael Brown Sr. said in a back room at Greater St. Mark Family Church on Tuesday afternoon. ‘The whole thing with the death of my son and the verdict. I’m just crushed.’ The Rev. Carlton Lee, Michael Brown Sr.’s pastor, said the last three months have been extremely tough for Brown’s parents.  ‘Right now he still wants peace but at the same time he’s full of pain, full of hurt.’” Can you hear, can you imagine the hurt, the pain? Where is the word of comfort, the work of compassion, the measure of healing? Ironically, such words of hope are part of Michael Brown’s father’s song, uttered before the grand jury verdict.

“My family and I are hurting, our whole region is hurting. I thank you for lifting your voices to end racial profiling and police intimidation – but hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone. We live here together, this is our home. We’re stronger united. Continue to lift your voices with us and let’s work together to heal and to create lasting change for all people regardless of race. Thank you.”

Remarkable words of hope. As we embrace Isaiah’s words of comfort, tenderness, forgiveness and restoration, could we also join in this father’s song of hope for a day when racial profiling, police intimidation, destroying property and hurting others is left behind us? In compassion, could we commit ourselves to bringing about incredible, positive change that would make the world better for everyone, everywhere?

I was struck by a story shared on Facebook yesterday. It showed this picture, along with the following caption. “Peace among protest: A Portland police officer noticed a 12-year-old boy holding a sign that read ‘Free Hugs’ during a Ferguson demonstration in Oregon. The officer started talking to the boy about the demonstration, school and life. When they were done talking, the officer asked if he was going to get a hug. The boy teared up — and obliged.” Silly sentimentalism, like the cover of today’s bulletin? Maybe so, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to believe that these kinds of tender, comforting, forgiving, healing embraces are possible – for all of us.

Another father, centuries ago, sang a song over his infant son. It, too, was a song of hope. Old Zechariah, the priest, had been struck dumb for questioning the angel’s promise that a child would be born to him and his wife in their old age. At the time of the child’s naming, his speech was restored so that he could confirm God’s name for this special child. His song is sung to a people living in oppression instead of exile. The Romans ruled the land and his people chafed under the bitter yoke.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Has the old man gone mad in his time of silence? What is he talking about? It’s one thing to read from the scrolls of the ancients, but he’s talking like this is happening today, in our presence. Does he think he knows something we don’t? It all sounds pretty unrealistic, don’t you think?

One by one they slink away in embarrassed silence, leaving only a handful of stalwart believers to hear his quavering voice come to the climax of his aria. “…you, child, my sweet baby boy, miracle of my old age, you will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Such tender words of promise, such powerful words of hope, such amazing words of vision! Could it be so, that little John was to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one to announce God’s miraculous coming among his people? Then the coda, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

As with Isaiah and Michael Brown, Sr., God’s reward and recompense is not harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction. It is restorative rather than retributive justice which breaks like the dawn upon us, guiding our feet in the way of shalom, of peace and well-being, of healing and wholeness and home.

Well, if they had stayed they probably would have laughed at Zechariah’s vision, disdaining his silly sentimentality, mocking his song of hope. But, for some reason, these songs of fathers past and present keeping coming round. Somehow we can’t quite let go of them. As Desmond Tutu reminds us, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” There is something deep in us that longs to see through the shadows, even the shadow of death.

For us who claim to be followers of Christ, the promised one who comes to bring tender comfort, compassionate forgiveness, salvation and shalom, Brian McLaren writes this: “To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a dream, a desire, a hope for the future.” However, it is not enough to just hold hope. He says we need to “translate that hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.” He concludes, “…let us begin this Advent by lighting a candle for the prophets who proclaimed their hopes, desires and dreams. Let us keep their flame glowing in our hearts, even now” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 66). In the light of that candle’s glow, let us sing the songs of fathers who have held hope in their hearts, proclaimed hope with their lips and lived hope in their lives that it might be so with us as well. Amen.

Peace to the Nations (July 6, 2014)

sermonsPEACE TO THE NATIONS

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Text: Zechariah 9:9-12 (NLT)

 

Who can tell me the story of the Pilgrims in a sound bite?

Well, one of my favorite bloggers cites a sermon in which the preacher tells a revisionist tale about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Nancy Taylor, in her inaugural sermon as pastor of Boston’s historic Old South Church, the church whose congregants gave us the original tea party, proclaimed the following:

As you know, the Pilgrims…were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.

I suspect that most of us did not read that account in high school history books. I imagine those in authority in the Boise Public School District would have avoided this tacit approval of drinking beer as unsuitable for young folk. After all, we had enough temptation to resist without an intoxicating account of the beginning of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Joking aside, it does raise questions about what is urgent in our lives and the life of this nation, the USA. It is always challenging to find the right balance for preaching on one of our non-religious, but sacrosanct holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or the 4th of July. Joanne Jones and I had more than one discussion about the place of patriotic music in worship. For me it has no place in the worship of God. I pledged to myself long ago that I would not serve a congregation that kept a US flag in the sanctuary. I learned at my father’s knee the importance of separation of church and state.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I do not value this country and appreciate many of the nobler principles on which it was founded. But I also recognize that there are flaws in the system and much wrong that has been done under patriotic banners. In the Midweek Message, I asked us to consider the words of the great preacher, William Sloane Coffin, who declared that “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones,’ he says, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

The key word here is love. Sometimes love is blind and that can lead to a morass of trouble when the beloved is blindly affirmed in all she is and does. Sometimes love is absent and the critique is harsh, mean-spirited and hardly helpful. To love someone or something truly is to open one’s eyes to see the possibilities and limitations; then to speak truth grounded in that love. You are so beautiful; so full of possibility; so rich in resource, yet there are times and places where you are not living up to your promise; you are not fulfilling your potentiality; you are not sharing that with which you have been blessed.

This week on Facebook my uncle in Texas accused me of being part of the “illegal immigrant problem.” I’ll let you be the judge. My friend Harold Sutherland has worked for many years as an asylum officer with the Department of Homeland Security. Harold is a graduate of the American Baptist Seminary of the West and an ordained American Baptist minister. Some of you may remember that for a number of years before he went to work for the government, Harold did refugee resettlement with the American Baptist Churches of the West and the ABC-USA. Harold has a big, compassionate heart. I can only imagine how difficult it has been to do the work he has chosen. It is hard enough to try to resettle refugees. To work as an asylum officer must be excruciatingly painful at times.

Anyway, on Independence Day, Harold posted, with a photo of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’s great poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved in the statue’s base. He added this comment: “As the latest immigration debate rages, I want to share this. This has been a powerful symbol of our nation’s history and welcome. I fear that so many angry people here today want nothing to do with the sentiment of Emma Lazarus’s poem and I wonder what we will do, what can be done, and where will we go with this crisis.”

You remember the poem? I learned the last few lines in grade school.

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

When I reposted Harold’s post, I added these words. “The sentiment of this poem still moves me, especially as I view the ugly, angry mob in Murietta, CA.” When I saw that mob on the news, blocking the buses carrying children and families from what appear to be obscenely inadequate quarters on the Texas border to other detention centers where they will be processed, then most likely returned to their country of origin, I found it difficult to be proud of my country and at least some of its people. These protestors looked like ugly Americans to me and my heart fell. Where is our compassion? Where is the beacon-hand that glows world-wide welcome, the lamp that leads to safety, the golden door of opportunity that has opened at one time or another to the families of every person screaming hate and turning back those desperate children?

My uncle insists that his Italian ancestors came here legally, so that legitimates his right to be here. That may be so. I know the issues of legality are more complex than I can sort out. But what are we to say to Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, still lifting her lamp beside the golden door? What are we to say the God who made us all and loves us with the same ineffable love? What are we to say to Christ who stands at this table of communion and bids you and me and the all the world to eat and drink? How will we respond to that Spirit of compassion that blows around us, in us and through us when facing our neighbors in need?

Coffin, again, writes that “Individuals and nations are at their worst when, persuaded of their superior virtue, they crusade against the vices of others. They are at their best when they claim their God-given kinship with all humanity, offering prayers of thanks that there is more mercy in God than sin in us.” In the end, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I must confess that my first allegiance is to the God who made us and all creation, who through Christ is drawing all of creation back to God’s self.

Zechariah, an obscure, minor prophet, lived and worked in a challenging time for his people. After 100 years of exile in Babylon, they had been allowed to return home. In some ways Zechariah was an optimist or at least he was hopeful. He tried to encourage his people by exhorting them to rebuild the temple. Zechariah came from a family of priestly privilege but apparently he had a heart of compassion for the people struggling around him to rebuild their decimated city and reclaim their lost legacy.

His belief was that, in the work of rebuilding the temple, people would not only find meaningful employment but also that deep, covenantal relationship to God. The temple itself was secondary to that relationship to the one liberates and redeems, blesses and loves with a steadfast love. Eventually, Zechariah saw his people fail to live up to his dream, indeed, to their own national vision and the promise of the future. But in the moment he penned today’s text, he was full of hope for the promise of a renewed covenant. This was urgent for him, for his people, his nation.

For his people as for the people of Jesus’ time, the messianic vision became distorted toward a ruler who would come with armed might to drive oppressive enemies away and secure the boundaries and resources of the land for the insiders. But Zechariah says, and Jesus repeats the word, this is not how God works. Look, this king you so desire is coming to you. Shout! Rejoice! But also, beware. This sovereign one is not just powerful, he’s righteous and he’s humble. His power is not in armament or weapons. His power is love and compassion. His mission is to bring peace to the nations. Not what they expected. Not what they wanted to hear.

The risk of all self-righteous patriotism is uncritical love and loveless criticism. It creates boundaries among people that God never intended and refuses to recognize. It creates categories, defining who is in and who is out, categories at which God takes offense and rejects. God simply and eternally continues to widen the circle. There is room at God’s table for all and there is an abundant feast to fill the body, mind and soul of whomsoever will come. So where people take up the sword or the hateful placard against a neighbor, sister, brother, ill-defined as enemy, there is God turning swords to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. Wherever there are children of God longing for safety, for food, for shelter, for freedom, for love, for home, there is the daughter of Zion rejoicing with all her heart, there is Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, lifting her beacon hand of world-wide welcome beside God’s golden door, there is the king of righteousness and humility repaying two blessings for each trouble and bringing everlasting peace to the nations. May it be so.

Amen.

 

Busy days

Three candlesLast week was especially busy with the Grace Baptist anniversary celebration, two dress rehearsals and three concerts, the presentation by Palestinian Christians here in our Fellowship Hall, and the Associate Pastor Search Committee’s first meeting, along with Sunday worship and Patio Hour. It was a rich and full week for which I am grateful, but I have to say I crashed on Monday, equally grateful for a day off. There should be some breathing room in the days to come.

I am also grateful that Oleta is starting back to work some this week. Her surgery and recovery have been a long ordeal for all of us. We won’t work her too hard in the beginning. We’ll just be thankful she’s here. There are many tasks and details that she handles for us that need her expert and experienced touch. We have managed to stay afloat but it will be good to have her back.

The church choir is on hiatus for the summer and Jan and Peter are off on a wonderful adventure in Scandinavia. We are always grateful for Jan’s wonderful leadership of our music program and for our choir. This week Jean Cole will play the service and the following two Sundays we will welcome our friend, Ruth Winter.

Don’t forget Sunday is the church picnic so bring a side dish to share and dress casually. Eleanor Satterlee is still looking for Patio Hour hosts for the rest of the summer, so see her if you can help out.

For the month of July we will continue to delve into the prophets. This week we have the famous passage from Zechariah that is often an Advent reading and is the source of the great soprano aria from Messiah, “Rejoice Greatly!” In this “peace poem,” Zechariah gives God’s promise to the struggling returnees from exile of better days to come, days filled with peace and the goodness of God. Promises of peace and well-being are good to hear anytime. As the people of the USA remember our Independence Day and the foundation of our nation, may we also remember that, beyond our borders, this is all God’s world. As the great cellist, Pablo Casals, once said, “Love of country is a wonderful thing, but why should love stop at the border?” There are sisters and brothers all over this globe with whom we need to live – in peace and love, in harmony and well-being.

See you Sunday at 10 AM for Worship, Sunday School and for the picnic to follow. This is a perfect time to invite someone(s) to share the day with you.

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

Pastor Rick  

        MORE LIGHT…MORE LOVE…MORE LIFE