Listening And Living (7/16/2017)

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Text: Psalm 119:105-12, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NRSV)

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances. I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word. Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord, and teach me your ordinances. I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law. The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts. Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.

As we read these ancient words from Psalm 119 on Tuesday, I was struck once more by their power and beauty. I admit that I sometimes wrestle with the language of the Psalms. That’s why I most often turn to Nan Merrill’s lovely paraphrase when including a Psalm in our liturgy. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a paean to the Torah, the ancient Jewish law. What hit me Tuesday is that this Psalm is in no way a tribute to the letter of the law but rather to its enlivening spirit. “Your word, O God, is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” This is no dry legal brief; this is a love song to the law, to a living word.

Continue reading Listening And Living (7/16/2017)

Free at Last!

Free at Last!
Pastor Gregory Stevens
2 July 2017
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

When I lived in Florida and was working as a youth minister at the local Methodist megachurch in town, we would take the middle schoolers to summer camp just around this time when they were on break. We’d all pile into the church vans and head to the woods. The camp we always stayed has this rustic feel that transported you into a safe space, far from the troubles of home. You and your friends could do and be whoever you wanted! It was a sense of freedom from the drudgery of everyday life that made every kid and volunteer pleased to be there.

We’d tire the kids out with field games, scavenger hunts, and team building exercises. They’d shovel camp food down to re-fill each day, but by the fifth night we had them right where we wanted them: dead tired and ready to hear the “gospel.”

The last night was Cross Talk night where we told the strange rendering the gospels with God as a cosmic child abuser ready to send you to Heaven or eternal damnation at the mere repetition of a prayer spoken from the camp speaker.

Tired and heavy hearted their little hands would fly up when the alter call was made, they would rush crying to the front to “pray the prayer.”

Right as the prayer ended our worship band flipped on the laser lights and fog machines, and blasted the last worship song of the night. It’s a terrible song that repeats the chorus so many times you want to scream, or pray their silly prayer and get it over with so we could go home. But then again, the kids loved it, because we allowed all the newly “saved” kids to run around the worship area during the “I am free to run” repetitive chorus.

Sunday would roll around and we’d shovel the kids into the final worship service of the trip before heading home. I remember the camp speaker one year used the scripture from Romans that we are looking at today. Except he interpreted Paul’s talk about sin and freedom in the strangest way possible.

In the conservative Christian mind, individual sins are equal to if not worse than social sins. So for example, if I were to get up in front of an evangelical megachurch and say, “10,000 children die of starvation every day and you don’t give a shit.” The majority of complaints would actually be about my use of the word “shit” rather than the fact that 10,000 children are dying every single day. If God really was up in Heaven tallying up sins and weighing out their severity for a just punishment, you’d think a society based on starvation and impoverishment of children would deserve far more frightening a punishment than saying the word “shit.”

The “Freedom” we were selling at our camp that summer was all about a very specific culture’s understanding of bad behavior. For us at the time, it was about the freedom to go to church because God wants you to, the freedom to decide Heaven or Hell, it was the freedom to get rich because God wanted you to, it was the freedom to ignore the world’s problems and flourish as an individual without recognizing the community that supported and created the person you’ve become.

In studying anthropology, this last year it became clear that in our country the leaders and rulers do the same sort of controlling thing, calling it “free” or “freedom.”

Free Market and Free Trade, are the two that first come to mind. Neither of which are free of anything but regulations, and what are regulations but safety measures for workers, for the environment, and for the products being produces. De-regulation creates poverty and ecological destruction while being called “the market working itself out.”

The deceptive naming is intentional as the terms Fair Trade and Collective Markets don’t sound as good. But if Freedom is about an individuals ability to gain wealth and power while ignoring the ones suffering under their flourishing, is totally false and unfaithful to the witness of Paul in this scripture.

What Paul is suggesting is that we shouldn’t go on sinning, even though God’s love and grace are sufficient for anything you could possibly imagine, and Paul says this not because he’s asking everyone to live an individualistic and legalistic Christian lifestyle, checking off al your personal bible times, prayer times, and volunteer times.

But you see, that central to the Christian lifestyle is relationality, remember on Trinity Sunday we used reflected on our creation in the image of such a Trinitarian relational dynamism. Our freedom, isn’t about my freedom alone, our freedom is bound up in the freedom of everyone else.

A quote attributed to multiple authors, all women of color, as saying, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

In our country and in our religiosity we must begin to understand freedom as a collective freedom and not an individualistic freedom.

Sin in this sense is the act of taking away the freedoms of others, it is to force your own ideologies and ways of being onto the others without allowing them the freedom to participate in the decision-making process.

To be faithful in God to Jesus, is to be faithful to the well-being of relationships: the relationships we have with one another, other people groups, religions, and ethnicities, in those relationships we have with non-human animals and critters of all kind, and in those relationships with have with the ecosystems we inhabit.

Freedom is social rather than individualistic: it approaches liberty as a collectively produced relationship to our potential, not a static bubble of private human rights.

No person is an island, no community or ecosystem exists in isolation. For example, the safety and health of human populations are inextricably linked to the safety and health of our planet and Her creatures. None of us are truly free until even the most vulnerable communities and ecosystems among us are safe and flourishing.

Freedom in God, when I was growing up a Southern Baptist, was really about restrictions, limitations, and an almighty pastor dude telling you how to live your life, in Jesus name of course.

Freedom in God meant, voting for the pro-war and ironically pro-life candidates, it meant no rated R movies and no cusswords, it was a freedom bound up by a false sense of reality, a restrictive authoritarianism, and a terrible rendering of the Biblical tradition.

The biblical tradition speaks to community and collective action over and above the individual. As if to say the individual matters and deserves the ability to express oneself, but when freedom is understood as self-interested and self-involved it misses the mark, it must be known and embodied collectively.

Our lives, our Christianity, is bound up in the lives of others. May we honor these relations with grace and peace. Relations to the immigrant, the other, the queer, the transgender, the Muslim, the Leftist, the Methodist, and whomever else might be an outsider that we might join in solidarity.

Heal your relations, mend the wounds, pay reparations, and join me in incarnating the holy Spirit of Pentecost where diversity is described as divine.

This is the good news: God so love the world God moved into the neighborhood and can be found in all the least likely places with all the wrong people. Relationships might be torn and disjointed, maybe messy and uncomfortable, but this is our work: to incarnate the Gospel of inclusion, love, and radical hospitality in all our relations, for in doing so we find our liberation, our freedom.

Amen.

Christ of Great Compassion (6/18/17)

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Text: Matthew 9:35 – 10:1 (The Message)

Several years ago now, Kathy Gillam was instrumental in organizing a conference on compassion at Stanford, hosted by the medical school and its Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The conference presenters included two great modern champions of compassion – the Dalai Lama and Karen Armstrong. At the time, Karen Armstrong was touting her evolving work with the Charter of Compassion, a sort of semi-religious creed, based on the Golden Rule. In Adult Spiritual Formation, Dan Cudworth led us in a study of the Charter. Last year the Satterlees and I read Into the Magic Shop, an inspirational memoir by James Doty, the director of the Stanford Center, about the origins of his own understanding of the connections between the brain and the heart in shaping and guiding our lives.

Thus we see that compassion has become a surprisingly popular topic of thought and conversation in a world like ours so often characterized by competition, success, accumulation, greed, bullying, enmity, and hatred. Hopefully there is a recognition, a growing one, that unless we learn to look out for one another and for the planet, prospects for the future are grim and perhaps even slim. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a lovely idea but come on. Get real. You have to take care of number one first, right? Well, maybe if you’re especially generous, you could make the focus of living you and yours. But that’s the extent of it.

Continue reading Christ of Great Compassion (6/18/17)

Speaking Out Boldly (6/4/2017)

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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Text: Acts 2:6-21 (The Message)

With the crackle of flame and a whoosh of wind Pentecost is ushered in in this fantastic and familiar tale. It’s an important story that cycles around every year as we celebrate the “birthday of the church.” There are many angles a preacher could take in addressing this ancient word, but the thing that stuck out for me as we considered this text on Tuesday at Bible study is Peter’s role. In particular, I was caught by the text recording that Peter “raised his voice” (NRSV) or as The Message puts it, “spoke out with bold urgency.”

On the surface, it’s not a particularly remarkable thing. Surely someone addressing a large crowd, especially without the aid of amplification, would raise his voice or speak out boldly. The text tells us that, with the coming of the Spirit in wind and flame, all disciples are stirred up to speak out boldly. Not only do they speak out, but they are enabled to speak in such a way that people from a number of different language groups understand them. It’s something of a miracle, isn’t it? After all, these disciples are mostly Galilean peasants, poor, uneducated, unlikely to speak any language other than their own.

So, it’s a sort of circus, a kind of crazy block party, as the disciples pour out of the quarters where they have remained locked away since Jesus’ death. This week Carnaval was celebrated in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s the largest multicultural festival held on the West Coast. Did you see and hear, either in person or on the news, the different cultures, brilliant costumes, and colorful languages represented as people took to the streets in celebration? I know Pentecost did not unfold exactly like Carnaval, but it gives you some sense of the rich diversity that gathered on the streets of Jerusalem that first Pentecost morning.

The writer of Luke says the crowd was baffled by the behavior of the disciples. He reports that “When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, ‘Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?’”

We’ve played on Pentecost in the past with the variety of languages that might be spoken in our own congregation, including English, Spanish, French, Creole, Japanese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Orilla, and Lebanese. Imagine how it would be in our little group if people started speaking in all of these languages at once and everyone somehow understood what was being said. It would be strange, exciting, confusing, a minor miracle. Or what if I stood up to preach and each of you understood in the non-English language with which you are familiar? Crazy, huh?

Well, whatever happened that day, the writer of Luke says the crowd cried out “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” At the very least, the crowd understood the words they heard and some of them understood the Word that was behind those words. In the end, the writer reports that more than 3000 people joined the church or “their number” that day. It was the sort of evangelistic meeting that Billy Graham would envy, a mighty revival of sorts!

And speaking of evangelistic preachers, the preacher that day was none other than Peter. But before we crown Peter the chief spokesperson for emerging church for speaking out boldly on this day, let’s do a little background check. From the various gospel accounts, what do we know about Peter before this day? In my mind he was impulsive, inconsistent, an ignorant Galilean fisherman. I picture him as large, dominant, loud, opinionated, slightly boorish. One minute he has brilliant insight into the nature of Jesus’ calling and the next he is trying to stall Christ’s mission. He thinks he can walk on water until he discovers he can’t. He is a rock that is susceptible to crumbling at the most inopportune time.

In fact, in Luke’s gospel, the last time Peter is mentioned before Pentecost morning is on the night they arrested Jesus. We find him huddled in the courtyard outside the high priest’s house. Remember, earlier in the evening, when they we were all gathered around the table for the last supper, it was Peter who boldly proclaimed, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). A form of bold speech, to be sure, but listen to Peter’s prologue to Pentecost:

When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. Christ turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered Jesus’ word, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:55-62).

The camera pans out on a weeping Peter, bowed down in shame, devastated by his own words of betrayal.

So, you see, for Peter to speak out boldly on Pentecost something has to have happened in his life, something that radically transforms him, for, indeed, from this day forward it is reported that he was a strong witness for the Jesus Way, capable of performing his own signs and wonders in Jesus’ name. When the Spirit comes and lights upon you, chances are that you will be changed in ways you never imagined. For Peter, there is apparently forgiveness, redemption, and empowerment in Pentecost; he is never the same again. A Galilean fisherman becomes the Rock on which the church is founded. If it can happen to him, why not you and me?

You see, speaking out boldly is not reserved for heroic figures from long ago, for the canonized saints of the church, for folk with special spiritual gifts, it is a way of life for those who claim to follow Jesus. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone who loves Jesus needs to get on a soapbox on the nearest street corner and win souls for Christ. But I am reminded again of that old Baptist hymn that affirms:

My life flows on in endless song;
above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

And, no, that does not mean I expect any really committed Christian to join the choir (though we would be happy to have you.)

Another lectionary text for today is from the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians in which Paul proclaims:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

As the choir sang last week, there are “many gifts, one Spirit.” The challenge for each of us, as Christ followers, is to find our gifts and to use them, empowered by the Spirit, to bring about God’s Beloved Community. Each of us is encouraged to be “speaking out boldly,” in their own way, the truth of the gospel as we have come to know it. The great German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, has written, “The sending of the Holy Spirit is the revelation of God’s indestructible affirmation of life and [God’s] marvelous joy in life. Where Jesus is, there is life. That is what the Synoptic Gospels tell us. Where Jesus is, sick people are healed, sad people are comforted, marginalized people are accepted, and the demons of death are driven out. Where the Holy Spirit is present there is life” (Jurgen Moltmann. The Source of Life, p. 19).

To the degree that you believe this is so – that God affirms and finds joy in all life, including yours and mine, and that “where Jesus is, there is life,” in the richest, fullest sense of the word, I invite you to take the strip of paper that was given you and write out what you might say (or do) in speaking out boldly in the Spirit of Pentecost. Take that truth claim with you. Pray about it. Invite the Spirit to move you to action. Be the church as best you can, be the Body of Christ, dream dreams, see visions, prophesy, if it comes to that. And remembering, now and then, that old affirmation of faith, sing to yourself, “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” Amen.

From There to Here and Back

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Text: Acts 1:6-11 (The Message); John 17:1-11 (NRSV)

“Well, dear Theophilus, God-lovers all, the story continues…” writes Luke at the very beginning of the book of The Acts of the Apostles. His aim is to show how Jesus lives on in the life of the church through the empowerment and direction of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the one who fills Christ’s followers with courage and strength.  The text tells us that life in the Holy Spirit is not only promised to the disciples in the days to come, the Spirit is actually the One through whom they have received instructions from Jesus.  The Spirit has already been active in their lives indirectly; now they are promised direct experience of that same Spirit.

Much of Christian tradition has made a claim for the Resurrection as the culmination of Jesus’ life and ministry, but a case can be made for the Ascension.  John, in particular, argues this. “…now I am no longer in the world…I am coming to you… glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed,” Jesus prays to God. John wants us to understand that Jesus’ journey is, most importantly, from there to here and back. But, just as important is the message that this journey is also ours. We come from God; we return to God; and always and forever it is in God that we live and move and have our being. This is crucial to what Jesus was trying to show those first followers – and us – in the Incarnation.

Continue reading From There to Here and Back

To An Unknown God (5/21/2017)

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Text: Acts 17:22-31

For a little bit of context, let’s look at the verses which precede today’s text:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Now it may be that the Athenians were superstitious people – people who covered all their bases by erecting a shrine “to an Unknown God,” just in case they had missed a god in the creation of their pantheon of deities.  Or perhaps they were sophisticated enough to know that there were gods or dimensions of deity that would always extend beyond the human capacity to know.  At any rate, the writer of Acts indicates that Paul was unhappy to find such a proliferation of gods throughout the city of Athens.  However, he did not vent his anger with the Athenians over their polytheism in the same manner he would later with the Romans (Romans 1:18-23.).

Continue reading To An Unknown God (5/21/2017)

Be Very Sure (5/14/2017)

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Text: 1 Peter 1:22-2:10

Scholars believe that the little book of First Peter was written in a time when Christians were being persecuted. It was addressed to people in a troubled time. It is a peculiarly pastoral letter, gentle in tone, avoiding threats of judgment and damnation. The writer seemed to understand that the communities to which he wrote needed to hear an encouraging word. They needed to have their hopes lifted and they needed to be reminded that their future was in God’s hands.

The remarks of certain dissemblers aside, I doubt very seriously that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world today. In fact, far too often in more modern times, practices of those claiming to be Christian have been highly persecutory, doing more damage than good in the world. Yes, we know there are places in the world today where Christians are paying a heavy price for their faithfulness, cruelly persecuted and even killed for their beliefs. But I would bet that most of us have not suffered greatly for our faith. To the degree that that is true, it may be difficult to get the full impact of this little letter to the early church.

Continue reading Be Very Sure (5/14/2017)