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)

Glad and Generous Hearts (5/7/2017)

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

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Text:  Acts 2:42-47

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I imagine that most of us would agree that this is not the best of times. Is it the worst of times? I can’t say for certain. There are many things within the current social and political scenes that feel pretty awful, about as bad as we can remember. The problem with judging this as the worst of times is that we lose sight of some terrible times that have gone before.

For instance, I have been reading Ron Chernow’s great biography of Alexander Hamilton. Interestingly, it is the work on which the contemporary hit musical is based. Let me tell you, the book is an excellent historical account of a key figure in the founding of this country, but it seems a highly unlikely source for a musical. I haven’t seen the musical, so I can only give credit to Lin Manuel Miranda’s genius from afar, for it must take genius to make music of such an account of a most challenging time in US history.

The political infighting in the late 18th century between the Federalists and the Republicans was fierce. Each side believed the success of the new nation was totally dependent on its point of view and each feared the other was selling out America’s new-found independence. The Republicans believed the Federalists were a front for the British monarchy and the Federalists saw the Republicans as tools of the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution. This was the beginning of party politics, and if you think today’s news conferences – fake or otherwise, tweets, leaks, hacks, and other political chicanery are bad, you should read about the terrors of politics in the 1790s. The diatribes, name-calling, mud-slinging, etc., was vicious and offered up under pseudonyms that purported to keep the authors anonymous. Libelous commentary and threats to honor were still settled with duels, one of which took Hamilton’s life. As I said, I can’t affirm with any certainty that this earlier time was worse than the present but it was surely not good.

This week we have seen the President abruptly end an interview with a respected journalist in a childish pique because he didn’t like the questions that challenged unsubstantiated claims he had made about his predecessor. We watched as he signed an executive order undermining religious liberty.  Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee of Religious Liberty writes, “The vast majority of congregants and clergy from all religious groups oppose candidate endorsements in their houses of worship. Pastors will continue to speak truth to power and preach on moral issues, no matter how controversial, and they don’t need a change in the tax law to do it. But getting rid of the protection in the law that insulates 501(c)(3) organizations from candidates pressing for endorsements would destroy our congregations and charities from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns.”

For me, the most egregious event of the week was the passage in the House of Representatives of a health care bill that promises more harm than health for the many Americans. I was especially impressed with these comments by Massachusetts Congressman, Joe Kennedy. They seem intricately entwined with today’s text. He observes:

“It is among the most basic human truths: Every one of us, someday, will be brought to our knees. By a diagnosis we didn’t expect, a phone call we can’t imagine, or a loss we cannot endure.

That common humanity inspires our mercy. It fortifies our compassion. It drives us to look out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us.

Yesterday’s bill — yesterday’s devastating bill — does the opposite.

The bill is more than premiums and tax cuts. It is a cold and calculated world view: One that scapegoats the struggling, and sees fault in suffering. One dead set on dividing us based on who we love, where we come from, the direction of our faith and the size of our fortunes.

We must reject it.

We must decide, instead, to take care of each other — because, but for the grace of God, we will all one day wake up in need of a little mercy.

This nation’s character has never been defined by the power we give the already strong — but by the strength we give the weak.”

Is Kennedy right? Do we believe we are part of a “common humanity”? Has our national character overall been defined by the “strength we give the weak”? Would God it were so. It certainly sounds like gospel truth to me. I am not sure that it has ever been consistently American truth. But it does seem like Kennedy has caught some of the vision of that first community of Christ-followers in Jerusalem, what some refer to as the first church. In Luke’s, perhaps overly idealized, summary of what that community was like, the strength given to the weak was crucial – “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

It’s easy to look at this passage from Acts and read “communism” between the lines in big red letters. That’s what happened in Bible Study on Tuesday. Because of the great Cold War waged between American capitalism and state communism, it is still a dirty word in the vernacular, and this text raises old specters for those who remember. In his sermon, “A Vibrant Communism,” Australian Bruce Prewer begins by sayingGiven the fears, suffering and massacres caused by the Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Pol-Pot brands of political communism during the twentieth century, the word communism has been corrupted. Maybe irredeemable? Can I even dare use the word ‘communism’ without raising barriers and arousing hostility in many people?  I guess I’ll know, by the feedback, after this sermon.”

Rather than focus on the worst of times, I would rather attend to the good news in today’s text. It is actually a favorite of mine.  Even if Luke is embellishing what really happened among those first followers, this still seems to me to be a fitting account of the Jesus way. First and foremost, it says the early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In other, words, they grounded their lives individually and communally in spiritual discipline. I know you’ve heard me say before that this sort of spiritual practice is vital to understanding and living out the gospel.

Then, because they engaged in this spiritual discipline, they were not only able to do “signs’ and wonders,” as Jesus had, they were able – at least for a while – to sustain a community in which they shared, not only their possession, but their lives. They could live communally, praying, breaking bread and eating together with “glad and generous hearts.” Isn’t that a wonderful way to describe a community – one that is characterized not only by giving strength to the weak but also by living their lives with glad and generous hearts? Maybe, in these troubled times, especially in these troubled times, we, as people of faith, as followers of Christ, ought to work at cultivating glad and generous hearts. I don’t mean we should stick our heads in the sand while the world crumbles around us. It is always appropriate to speak truth to power. But listen to the result of those first Christians living with glad and generous hearts. They experienced the “goodwill of all the people. And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved.” There was actually something salvific in their witness, something infectious in the spirit of joy and generosity with which they approached life.

Prewer, looking back at this first community, ends his sermon suggesting to his contemporary congregation, “Such idealistic communism would be truly a bit of heaven on earth. Those first Christians bravely and lovingly practiced it in Jerusalem. Think of the witness that such a caring and sharing way of life must have had on the community around them. Folk would really sit up and take notice. No wonder new converts were being baptized every day.”

Though holding all things in common, selling our possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to those in need, may be a vision of God’s Beloved Community for which we are not yet prepared, we can still live our lives caring and sharing, building up our common humanity, giving strength to the weak, inspiring mercy, fortifying compassion, and looking out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us. And very importantly, because we have been loved, cared for, and blessed, we might live our lives, even in tough times, with glad and generous hearts. What do you think? Shall we give it a try? Amen.

Now What? (4/16/17)

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Text:  Matthew 28:1-10

For those of us old enough to remember movie spectaculars like The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments, Matthew is the Cecil B. DeMille of the gospels. For younger generations, think George Lucas and Star Wars or Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. Only Matthew tells of a great earthquake as an angel of God descends from heaven. This angel, blessed with super powers, rolls back the enormous stone that seals the tomb. And talk about an outfit! His snow-white suit dazzles like lightning. Match that, Superman! Not exactly someone you want to mess with. High drama! Serious spectacle. Academy award worthy special effects. I wonder how some of you young movie makers in the congregation would set up this scene and film it.

Then this superhero angel dude, sitting on that mega stone, the Roman guards knocked unconscious at his feet, has the audacity to say to those two terrified Marys, “Don’t be afraid!” “Oh sure, Gabe. You put on a show like that and we’re not supposed to be afraid.” Shaking like leaves in the early morning breeze, teeth chattering, they back away from the empty tomb and the heavenly hero.

Sorry if this seems over the top. But that’s the problem with looking at a 2000-year old text for the umpteenth time. We’ve heard it all before and it doesn’t really jangle our last nerve in the way it must have for Mary Magdalene and that other Mary. We have to work to slip our feet into their sandals.

Continue reading Now What? (4/16/17)

Resurrection and Life (4/2/17)

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Text:  John 11:1-45 (The Message)

One more long and complex tale from the writer of John. As with the others we have covered in this Lenten season, we could spend several weeks trying to unpack this story and still not come to any definite conclusions about the many difficult questions it raises. What thoughts and feelings come up for you as you’ve heard this old, familiar story read one more time?

I already vented, in this week’s Midweek Message, my frustration with Jesus choosing to delay going to the home of his dear friends when one of them was sick and dying. This is not the way friends ought to treat friends, is it? From my very human perspective, it doesn’t seem to serve God’s glory for Jesus to increase the suffering of his friends by his absence. But nearly every commentator gives some well-argued explanation for Jesus’ delay. There is also powerful good news in this challenging story.

Continue reading Resurrection and Life (4/2/17)

Sermon: Border Crossing

BORDER CROSSINGS

A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Text:  John 4:5-42

We’re hearing a lot of heated rhetoric these days about borders. The debate is centered primarily around security and safety. There is a lot of concern about who should be on which side of a given border. Who is a threat? Who is an enemy? Who is undesirable? Who has the right to belong and who is a usurper?

There was a time in my life when I would have gotten right in the middle of such a conflict. The old debater in me loved a good argument and the self-righteous side of me would have yielded to a belief that I had a corner on the truth. However, the older I get, the less inclined I am to want to do battle. I’d much rather try to figure out a way to reconciliation and peace. Continue reading Sermon: Border Crossing

Born Again Again?

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Text:  John 3:1-21

Nicodemus was somebody. He was somebody important. He had power and reputation and wealth.  He was a member of the religious, and, therefore, political elite in Israel.  He was also a Pharisee, which meant he was one of that brotherhood (some might say “good ole’ boy network”) of 6000 men who pledged to live the law, to study the Torah, and to devote themselves to keeping every one of its rules throughout their lives.  In a time and place where most people were achingly poor, the luxury of such a lifestyle must have been reserved for those with wealth.

As a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, the Sanhedrin being a kind of Supreme Court or ruling council limited to 70 members, with jurisdiction over the religious practice of every Jew in the known world.  Among its duties was the examination and prosecution of anyone suspected of being a false prophet.  This meant, among other things, that Nicodemus lived in an uneasy alliance with the Romans who, while limiting the Sanhedrin’s powers, still allowed it to function as a means of keeping the peace.

History indicates that his was one of Israel’s most influential families of this period.  When Jesus confronted him, he called him literally “that famous teacher in Israel.”  His reputation for scholarship and wisdom preceded him.  He was certainly not young, as witness his response to Jesus’ words about new birth.  It is clear that he had been around, a wily survivor in a tense and potentially explosive environment.

In short, this man had it all – power, money connections, intelligence, respect.  He had it made.  For what more could one ask?  Why would he, of all people, seek out this troublemaker from Galilee?  Was he someone who, in spite of being part of the power structure, had retained enough contact with his own rebellious youth that he wanted to warn off this young upstart before he got into too much difficulty?   Was there some attraction stirring in his old loins for this wild young man from the provinces with the piercing eyes and determined manner?

Perhaps he wanted to buy him off, to get him out of town before he stirred up too much trouble.  After all, it was hard enough to keep peace with the hated Romans and still maintain a shred of their proud tradition. They didn’t need troublemakers from the back-country coming in and creating problems.  They just couldn’t afford anyone stirring up the people. Hadn’t this fellow just created chaos in the temple by driving out the moneychangers and overturning the tables of the sellers of sacrificial animals – all of whom were just doing their jobs, trying to earn a living while providing loyal and lucrative sources of income for the religious leadership?  If the Jewish leaders could not maintain order in their own temple, then the Romans would be forced to take action to do it for them.

In fantasy, I imagine the scene something like this.  Nicodemus’s sleek black limousine rolls down a dark alley and stops at the back entrance of a seedy hotel.  Clearly, he does not want to be seen on his midnight errand; nor does he want to soil his reputation or himself in such a setting.  The chauffeur opens the door, some of his men slip from the car, fanning out through the hotel, making sure the passageways are clear, and then the great man himself emerges, moving deliberately and quietly through the musty corridors to the room of the young man.  He orders his men to wait outside the room while he speaks to the man alone.

The room is dimly lit and the man sits cross-legged on the sagging bed.  He does not rise but simply gestures for the great man to sit in the one broken chair in the corner of the tiny room, facing the bed.  The window is open in hope that some breeze will stir to alleviate the stifling heat, heat infused with the unpleasant odors of the shabby hotel.

Nicodemus sits gingerly on the edge of the chair, quickly surveying his surroundings, fastidiously adjusting his tie, then staring at his manicured nails and the large, but tasteful, diamond ring on his finger, obviously uncomfortable in this unfamiliar setting, and at all costs avoiding the young man’s steady gaze, which he feels locked on him like a laser.  At first, Jesus simply looks at his midnight visitor quizzically, wondering what Nicodemus could possibly want of him; then, having skimmed the surface trappings of this wealthy, powerful man, he turns his searching gaze to look deeply into Nicodemus’s soul.  The mighty patriarch shifts uncomfortably, and finally speaks: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God;” – the recognition and respect come haltingly off his tongue – “no one could perform these signs of yours unless God was with him.”

The mystery of Nicodemus’s visit is suddenly unshrouded.  He has not come to banish, to take advantage of, or even to admonish the young man.  Perhaps those things were on his mind when he arranged this assignation, but now, face-to-face with Jesus, he confesses that he – and, actually, some of the other leaders as well – have heard and seen something in Jesus which has touched them.

It is clear to Jesus – this is a seeker, someone who, in spite of his wealth and wisdom and power, is still lost, unfulfilled, longing for something more in his life.  Jesus issues Nicodemus one of those tantalizing and difficult challenges like the one he had issued to the rich young man whom he had urged to sell everything he had and follow him.  He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see God’s realm unless he or she is born again, from above.”  Nicodemus looks at him in astonishment, his vaunted wisdom deserting him, as he makes a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words: “How can someone old be born again?  Can I enter my mother’s womb a second time and be born?”  (At this point, I can’t help but wonder whether, at some level, Nicodemus is toying with Jesus, because, like the rich young man, he has much to lose if he takes Jesus seriously.)

Jesus expands on what he means: “No one enters God’s realm without being born of water and spirit” – water referring to the baptism of John, the Baptizer, who, Nicodemus knew very well, had stirred up the whole country with his passionate calls for repentance and watery regeneration; spirit referring to Jesus’ own transforming power as the Word made flesh, as the beloved Christ-Child of God, in whom God is well pleased.  In the face of this challenge to religious orthodoxy and the possibilities of being confronted by God in the flesh, Nicodemus is feeling increasingly uneasy.  Suddenly, a night breeze flutters the tattered window shade and Jesus seizes the opportunity to move the conversation deeper into spiritual reality: “The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.  This is how it is with everyone born of the spirit.”

Now Nicodemus’s defenses are really up, fear – and, perhaps, a glimmer of excitement and even hope – dance in his deteriorating eyes.  “How can this be?” he sputters.  Jesus shoots him a withering look and Nicodemus seems to wilt in the intensity of Jesus’ stare: “You, that great teacher of Israel and ignorant of such things?!  If I give you clear, practical illustrations of great spiritual truth and you don’t understand, how will I ever be able to unfold for you the things of heaven?”  Still, Jesus makes the effort: “Listen, no one has gone into heaven except the one who comes from heaven, and that one must be lifted up, in order that everyone who has faith may have eternal life.”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “Here I am, right in front of you, the Word made flesh, proclaiming and living the reign of God, in this time and place, by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, advocating for the poor, caring for the outcast, cleansing the temple, and calling the whole creation back into communion with its Creator.  Open your eyes, man!  Eternal life is here.  It’s now.  It’s available for the taking.  God loves the world enough to give God’s only Child so that everyone who has faith in that Christ-Child will not perish but have this very eternal life.”

At this point the Gospel writer abandons the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, having made what use of it he has found necessary.  So, we are not privileged to share the rest of the encounter between these two.  From here on the Gospel writer is commenting on the truth which the story illustrates for him.  He wants us to understand that God did not send the Christ-Child into the world to condemn the world.  God is not about destruction.  God, who above all is love, acts out of that love to draw all of creation back into that “mystic sweet communion” for which creation was intended.

As Henri Nouwen has written, “The great spiritual battle begins—and never ends—with the reclaiming of our chosenness. Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time—our brief chronological existence—but by One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved). The reclaiming of our chosenness, the recognition that we are loved, to be born again and again, into the life of God’s Beloved Community.

If there is judgment here, it is the kind of judgment Nicodemus must have felt sitting in Jesus’ presence, realizing that all his trappings of wealth and power, that all his faithfulness to the law and tradition, that even his wisdom could not save him from that feeling of emptiness, that sense of not having made the connection with God that compels one, living from the inside out, to devote one’s life to faithful acts of love.  This is love that is lived out because I see that I have first been loved by God – God, who sends the Christ-Child, God’s only offspring, in the ultimate act of lingering love, intended to draw all creation back to Godself.

The light in those piercing, all-seeing eyes has come into the world.  If we can give ourselves over to the burning light of love in those eyes, we can be healed, we can be saved.  But sometimes, as we say in counseling, “it may get worse before it gets better.”  Nicodemus is right in saying that being born again is not an easy thing.  It may mean being born again and again and again. It may require acts of daily renewal. It will always cost something – especially for those of us who have a lot to lose, a lot to give up, in order to be able to follow Jesus, to commit our lives, not to living out the great laws of the tradition, but simply living out the law of love – love for God, love for neighbor, love for self.  As Basil of Caesarea reminded the early church, “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

It is much easier to turn away in search of some less demanding source of salvation, some other means of healing, some other way to wholeness which will offer better benefits, more security, and which we can control.  The trouble is, the minute we turn away from the light of Jesus’ presence, our vision dims, things become less clear, our world becomes more confusing, the anxiety of being so responsible for our own lives increases, and living in hell becomes at least a part of our present reality.  If we agree to follow Jesus, to accept God’s love, to walk in the light, we do not know where the Spirit will lead us, but we can trust that wherever that is, it will be where God intended us to be all along.  The good news contained in this passage is that God, through the gift of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, has brought and continues to bring God’s people forth, into joy from sadness. Amen.