The Time is Fulfilled (Sermon)

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 18, 2018

Text: Mark 1:9-15

Up and down, up and down, this has been a week of high and lows as, indeed, are most of the weeks of our lives. In the midst of the spectacle of athletes from all over the world, coming together in Korea for the Olympic games, an angry, hate-filled young man mowed down seventeen people in a Florida high school. While young people from around the globe donned their skis and skates, their parkas and their sequins to show off their talent and skill, 19-year old Nikolas Jakob Cruz armed himself with a semi-automatic and acted out his rage on the students, teachers, and staff of his former school. While Olympic participants proclaimed their admiration for and friendship with competitors from vastly different cultures, Cruz was taking action on his recorded hate speech. One acquaintance said, “He fantasized, like, about the other things like Columbine, like Hitler. He fantasized those types of stuff.” She also observed that “He liked just hurting things.”

The tragedy of Parkland, Florida, would be horrible enough on its own, but there have been as many as 30 mass shootings in the USA in the first 45 days of 2018, at least 5 of which involved death or injury at a school. While I am aware that statistics can be manipulated in a multitude of ways, it appears that Americans own more than 310 million guns, nearly half of the 650 million privately owned firearms world-wide. At the same time, a 2016 University of Alabama study reports that, while the USA makes up 5% of the world’s population, it experiences 31% of the world’s mass shootings. There must be some connection here. For me, the bottom line is that we seem to live in a gun-obsessed country among people with an unhealthy proclivity for violence.

As I wrote in this week’s Midweek Message, “…it seems almost pointless to rant any more about the absurdity and obscenity of gun violence in our country. Other nations have responded to such tragedies as yesterday’s mass murder in a Parkland, Florida high school with reasonable and stringent gun control measures that have proved to be effective. Is there some perverse dimension to American exceptionalism that this logic does not apply to us? Are we really hostages to a national gun and ammunition lobby that can rationalize automatic weapons in the hands of anyone outside of combat? (and I have questions there, as well.) Have we selected men and women to govern us who cannot see beyond their own self-interest in re-election to stand up for what is good and right? At the moment, I feel helpless and,

frankly, hopeless. If you have any ideas about what we might actually do to help turn this around, please let me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking.”

So, I bring that question to you this morning. Is it acceptable to you to live in such an environment? If not, what can we do about it? It is clear that, important as they are, thoughts and prayers are not enough. In fact, thoughts and prayers too often become an excuse for inaction. It may help the one who makes the offering to feel comfortable but it doesn’t, in itself, change anything. I have come to believe that prayer and action are inseparable. What is the point of prayer if it does not, in some way,, move us toward a different reality, whether that is a changed mind, a changed heart, or a changed world?

The great American rabbi and mystic, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote of prayer, “We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel. It is precisely the function of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.” Jesus experienced just such reality in today’s text. As he stepped up, out of the waters of the Jordan, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” This must have been a magical moment for Jesus. Even better than standing on the podium, with a gold medal around your neck, listening to your national anthem. What an amazing affirmation to come to the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Jesus must have felt 10 feet tall.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Whoa! Wait minute! Is that any way to treat the Son of God, the Beloved of the Holy One, just after his anointing? Talk about up and down. Jesus is driven, not politely invited or gently escorted, into the wilderness. Here is Mark, again, with no time for niceties. The time has come. Things must be done precisely and on schedule. You see, not even Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved of the Holy One is “hub…of the revolving wheel.” The time has come for Jesus to be in prayer – prayer that will “shift the center of [his] living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.”

My friend, Carl Gregg, writes of Jesus in this moment, “He needed time and space to hear God’s call over the din of the societal expectations around him…Jesus needed time in the desert to align his life with God’s way, with God’s hopes and dreams.” And isn’t that, in some sense, what Lent means for each of us? We may not be driven into the wilderness, but don’t we need time and space to “align [our lives] with God’s way, with God’s hopes and dreams”? Isn’t this a big part of what it means to recognize that we are made in the image and likeness of God? Perhaps, we, too, will learn to shift the center of…living from self-consciousness to self-surrender,” as Jesus did.

Driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, Jesus spends 40 days and 40 nights alone, except for the company of the wild beasts and angels. Who knows for certain what those wild beasts and angels represented – more ups and downs, challenges and comfort, real temptation and faithful resistance? Mark doesn’t give us any details. Jesus had his wilderness experience, as each of us must have, if we want to walk in God’s ways and share God’s hopes and dreams.

What Mark does show us is that, after this time of prayer and fasting, of wrestling and meditation in the wilderness, Jesus comes forth ready – ready to surrender himself to God’s will, ready to work, ready to make God’s Beloved Community a reality. “The time is fulfilled, and the Beloved Community of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Prayer leads to action. The day has come, the time is now.

Still, Heschel has a further word about prayer. He proclaims, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” I take this to mean that prayer helps us to see just how the Beloved Community has come near. Repent, turn around, it is time for a revolutionary movement that does away with “callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood,” that overcomes all that would “destroy the promise, the hope, the vision of God.”

You see, thoughts and prayers ought to lead us to confronting evil, to speaking truth to power, yes, even to picking up the cross and walking with Jesus in faithful obedience to the will of God. Empty thoughts and prayers, hollow promises, sitting on our hands, expecting the future to unfold is never enough. Something needs to be done. The time is fulfilled. We cannot wait any longer. We are made to be actors, co-creators with the living God.

So, what do we do once we have thought and prayed? One thing is that we cannot keep quiet. When the time was fulfilled for Jesus, he came forth proclaiming – proclaiming good news. What, then, are we to say? What is our good news, especially in the face of gun violence and mass murder? We may have to frame our good news in the negative to begin with. We may have to say a resounding “No” to gun obsession and violent tendencies. We may have to say it loudly and clearly – to our elected representatives, to governmental bureaucracies, to powerful lobbies and those who benefit from them. We may have to say it to friends and neighbors, colleagues and relatives, acquaintances and strangers who don’t want to hear it.

I have seen on Facebook this week a growing movement, coming largely from high school students across the land. They are proposing that students, teachers and staff walk out of their schools on March 14 and stay away until our government enacts sane and reasonable gun control for this nation. These students don’t want to live in fear of something like Columbine, Sandy Hook, or Parkland occurring in their schools. I’m not exactly sure what we might do to support such an effort, but it sounds to me like a profoundly practical prayer from our young people, a subversive move that “seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood…a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, [their hopes, their visions.]” Is the desire to learn and grow and share community in peace and harmony, unafraid of the repeated blasts of an A-15, that far from God’s own dreams and visions of the fulfillment of the Beloved Community? Whatever we can do, thoughtfully and prayerfully, to support such a movement would well be worth the effort.

Finally, I’d like to close with this prayer from another rabbi. I love that this prayer was posted on the Facebook page of Calvary Baptist Church in Denver with the caption, “The word of God for the people of God. Amen.” Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emmanuel in Denver offered this prayer in the Colorado State House on February 15, the morning after the Parkland shooting. Aside from the beauty of the words and the depth of the reflection, I was particularly impressed that it was prayed courageously, in the presence of people who hold the power to make a difference, many of whom were not likely to be sympathetic to its sentiments. Rabbi Black bowed his head and prayed:

Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body.
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this tragic day when we confront the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets.
Our prayers have changed nothing.
Once again, a disturbed man with easy access to guns has squinted through the sights of a weapon, aimed, squeezed a trigger and taken out his depraved anger, pain and frustration on innocents: pure souls. Students and teachers. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers- cut down in an instant by the power of hatred and technology.
We are guilty, O God.
We are guilty of inaction.
We are guilty of complacency.
We are guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.
The blood of our children cries out from the ground.
The blood of police officers cut down in the line of duty flows through our streets.
I do not appeal to You on this terrible morning to change us. We can only do that ourselves.
Our enemies do not come only from far-away places.
The monsters we fear live among us.
May those in this room who have the power to make change find the courage to seek a pathway to sanity and hope.
May we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.
Only then will our prayers be worthy of an answer. AMEN.

“The time is fulfilled, and the Beloved Community of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” – and believing may

we surrender willingly our self-interests, our self-absorption, our self-centeredness, in the name of Jesus the Christ, in order to make it so. Amen. 28168742_1383772538395358_2987218142632720714_n

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