A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 12, 2017
“Yes and no are very powerful words. Mean them when you say them. Respect them when you hear them.” So writes Michael Josephson in today’s Words of Preparation and I believe he is right. Such, small, simple words; yet they can carry great weight and deep meaning. They can actually shape a life. “Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” Jesus cautions his disciples, gathered on the mountainside. “When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.”
Yes and no, the crucial means to forming and communicating the choices we make. It’s yes or no. Well, there is “I’m not sure. Maybe. Let me think about it.” When I was looking for images for today’s bulletin, several of them were humorous versions of “yes, no, and maybe,” leaving room for the undecided. But there are times in life when we really must decide. Yes and no are the only options, the only choices available. I’m reminded of the poster that adorned the walls of many a college and seminary dorm room in the 60s, “Not to decide is to decide.” There are always consequences to the choices we make, even when we don’t actively make them.
The brief passage that Kathy read this morning comes near the end of Deuteronomy, so, near the end of the Torah itself. The law has been laid out. The terms of the treaty between God and God’s people made clear. The guidelines, rules, and regulations for building up and sustaining God’s Beloved Community written down. Now the old prophet/preacher, Moses, stands in the pulpit, exhorting the people, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Holy One your God, both obeying, and holding fast to God…”
We can spend our time wrestling with the system of rewards and punishments implied in this proclamation, but I like the way David Lose summarizes the intent of the old exhorter. Lose says, “First, the law is given always as a gift…God’s gift to help us get more from this life.” He continues by observing that the law is “given after God has already declared that Israel is God’s people. This means the law is not the means by which to become God’s people or to earn God’s love, but rather a gift given to God’s people because God loves them.” He also writes that “the law comes as a gift to strengthen community by orienting us to the needs of our neighbor” (David J. Lose, “On Love and the Law, February 6, 2017,” davidlose.net).
This is good news, I think, for any of us taught to see God as an almighty, all-knowing, punitive parent, just waiting for us to mess up so he could pounce on us and administer the penalty we deserve. Yes, the loving parent has rules and regulations but at their best they are in service of our welfare and the well-being of the family. Remember that Jesus is actually quoting from the Torah when he says the law is summed up in two great commandments – whole-hearted love of God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).
Lose, again, tells a story from Frank’s childhood. The eight-year old boy had gotten into a disagreement with his younger sister. Unfortunately, the disagreement escalated as those things are wont to do. It grew to the point where Frank was about to pummel his sibling. Having pinned her down, with fist raised to strike, his mother suddenly entered the room, enjoining him to stop immediately. An angry Frank turned to his mother and flashed, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At which point mother swooped across the room, towering over him, proclaiming forcefully, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!”
A God image? Lose summarizes, “That’s the law: God’s gift to protect and care for God’s children.” The attentive mother hen, the soaring mother eagle, the fierce mother bear, all determined to care for her young. Lose says, “I know we at times feel the negative impact or threat of the law, but it is because God cares so deeply about God’s children…all of God’s children. ‘No, you can’t hoard everything. No, you can’t discriminate and exclude. No, you can’t violate and exploit. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.’” This God-given law has to do with righteousness or right-living. It’s not so much a legal code as a guidebook for living as God intended when God brought us into being. That’s why Jesus addresses the law by overriding some of its rules when they no longer serve the well-being of humanity and intensifies others because he sees them as crucial to the welfare of the community and its members. The law was made to serve humankind not humankind to serve the law.
“Say yes to life,” the great law-giver and old prophet/preacher urges. Embrace God’s guidelines. They really are life-giving. Say no to everything that is life-denying. This is God’s way. In case you didn’t get it the first few times it was all laid out for you, here comes Christ to dwell among us and show us the way in his life and ministry. Here’s one small example. “…don’t say anything you don’t mean…You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.”
Now, there’s a little lesson we might all take to heart. Will God send us to hell if we dissemble? If we shave a little off the truth or embellish it just a touch? If we try to manipulate the situation to our own advantage? If we get caught up in creating alternative facts that support a particular perspective we’re trying to sell? I don’t think God is going to send us to hell…well, because I don’t believe in hell. But then, the chances are good we’ll experience a little hell of our making when we shape the truth to serve our self-interests. There’s something about plain spoken honesty that tends to work, not only for the good of the soul, but for the good of the community. “Yes and no are very powerful words.” Live so that you “mean them when you say them and respect them when you hear them.” The world will be a better place and you will be a better person.
I keep coming back to Fred Kaan’s words we sang earlier this month. Maybe it’s because they fit so well with these ancient texts dealing with the nature and function of God’s law. “O God judge us, judge us and set us free.” You will know – and say and do the truth and the truth will set you free. I was very moved this week by a story from the Los Angeles Times. I posted the story on the church’s Facebook page as well as my own. The story involves this man.
Mohamed Bzeek is a Muslim, living in the Azusa, in the LA area. He appears to be a large man and could be taken as intimidating, with his shaved head and his long flowing beard. As we have been told repeatedly, all Muslims should be suspected of and given extreme vetting for their inherent terrorist tendencies. Mohamed Bzeek could certainly come under suspicion. After all, look at him and remember he is a devout Muslim by his own profession. We all know what that means, yes? Overtly or secretly, he’s out to destroy us infidels.
Only this set of alternative facts, this prejudiced perspective, couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason Mohamed Bzeek was featured in the LA Times is because of an extraordinary life choice he has made. Because of his devout Muslim faith, he has chosen to let compassion shape his life. The headline for the article reads, “’I KNOW THEY ARE GOING TO DIE.’ THIS FOSTER FATHER TAKES IN ONLY TERMINALLY ILL CHILDREN” (LA Times, February 8, 2017). The headline alone stopped me in my tracks. Then, to top it off, this man is not only a devout Muslim but also a Libyan immigrant. I let you read the entire article for yourselves, but let me share these opening lines so you get the flavor of the story:
The children were going to die.
Mohamed Bzeek knew that. But in his more than two decades as a foster father, he took them in anyway — the sickest of the sick in Los Angeles County’s sprawling foster care system.
He has buried about 10 children. Some died in his arms.
Now, Bzeek spends long days and sleepless nights caring for a bedridden 6-year-old foster girl with a rare brain defect. She’s blind and deaf. She has daily seizures. Her arms and legs are paralyzed.
Bzeek, a quiet, devout Libyan-born Muslim who lives in Azusa, just wants her to know she’s not alone in this life.
“I know she can’t hear, can’t see, but I always talk to her,” he said. “I’m always holding her, playing with her, touching her. … She has feelings. She has a soul. She’s a human being.
My comment in posting this moving article was, “How many Christians could or would do what this devout Muslim foster father does daily?” I don’t mean for my question to sound snarky, but I honestly don’t think I have the compassion or stamina to do what this man does daily. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Holy One your God, both obeying, and holding fast to God…” How ironic that Mohamed Bzeek’s choosing life means that sick children die with dignity. “I will arise and go to Jesus, he will embrace me with his arms. In the arms of my dear Savior, oh! there are ten thousand charms.”
“Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” as the situation demands, as God instructs, as Christ leads, as the Spirit empowers. “Yes and no are very powerful words. Mean them when you say them. Respect them when you hear them.” Mohamed Bzeek not only means them when he says them; he means them when he lives them. We need to respect them we hear them uttered in his devotion and lived out in the life choices he has made. May he inspire us to do likewise. Amen.