Off to Kansas City

a new thingAn abbreviated Midweek Message this week as I am heading off to Kansas City to represent us at the first biennial Mission Summit of the ABC-USA.  I am going one day early to attend the pre-biennial theology conference and I will be staying for a couple of days after to attend the board meeting of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.  We are grateful that Naomi Schulz, one of our seminary interns for the coming year is able to fill in for Pastor Tripp while he is teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary for three weeks.  Naomi will be available for pastoral emergencies while I’m gone.  Wally Bryen will be preaching this Sunday and Naomi is working with him and Jan on the service.  The Cudworths will be doing coffee hour in celebration of their anniversary before they head off to Hawaii for vacation.  Please support all them in any way you can.

Big thank yous to Jan and the choir for all their hard work and beautiful music.  Also, kudos to everyone who helped make our first cook-out of the season a rousing good time

Come this Sunday at 10 AM and bring someone along to share the morning with you.

May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.

Pastor Rick

 

Random Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty (June 16, 2013)

Random Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty

A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 16, 2013

Text:  Luke 7:36-50

This is an exercise in “bumper sticker theology” or rather a midrash on a bumper sticker text.  The bumper sticker, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” is a kind of whimsical mandate to “lighten up,” to “stop to smell the flowers,” to “slow down, you’re going too fast.”  It has a peculiar charm in its reminder that there is so much more to life than hurrying here and scurrying there so we can cross one more thing off our “to do” lists, so we can make one more dollar, so we can exercise a little more control over the world that is whirling by outside us at the same time it is churning around inside us.  The bumper sticker reminds me of the story of Ferdinand, that gentle bull who stops to commune with flowers, completely losing track of what he’s “supposed” to be doing as a fierce fighter in the bullring.  Like Ferdinand, we might find happiness as gentle practitioners of kindness and connoisseurs of senseless acts of beauty.

What a potentially liberating set of ideas!  Just for a moment, might we allow ourselves the luxury of being kind, without needing to calculate how our kindness might work to our benefit?  Might we occasionally engage in the creation of beauty with no rhyme and little reason?  Or are we afraid that, if we practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty, we will never make our next appointment?   Is it possible that random kindness will cost more in time and energy, in reputation and power, than we are prepared to pay?  Do we get overly concerned that, leaving ourselves open to the beauty in creation, we will lose control of our carefully crafted schedules, that the neat and familiar categories into which we have organized our world will disintegrate?

This makes me think of the song from the musical, “Carnival,” in which Lili, a naive country girl, who finds beauty everywhere, joins a company of tattered circus puppets to sing about “Beautiful Candy,” too pretty to eat.  She urges them to:

Treat yourself to some dreams from the upper shelf,
Buy something someone took years to produce,
Something you’re sure is of no earthly use.
Try a treat like beautiful candy, too pretty to eat.

Stop living for reason,
Time to start living for rhyme.
I’m on a spree and I’m gonna make sure it’s a perfectly good waste of time.

Sun today will be scrambled for my soufflé.
I don’t whether to float or to fly.
First, I’ll find something I don’t need to buy
Something sweet like a hat with a bell, a blue parakeet,
Whistles to blow as I dance down the street,
beautiful candy, too pretty to eat.

Random kindness and senseless acts of beauty may seem silly on the surface, but what joy lies beneath?  Do we worry that, if we take the risk to follow our hearts, if we hunger for kindness and seek after beauty, the world as we know it might actually be turned right side up?  Funny how something as simple as a bumper sticker can send one reeling off into thoughts of sedition and fantasies of revolution!

Well, what of today’s text?  First, in the gospel of Matthew, we find another story about Jesus at table.  Jesus is in the home of Matthew, the tax collector, immediately after calling Matthew to follow him.  Jesus’ dining here is in direct violation of the purity code.  The Scribes and Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  These keepers of the religious establishment were shocked by Jesus’ behavior.  Bill Herzog comments that “[t]o grasp the power of this social conflict, it helps to know that the Pharisees were a table sect.  The goal of their efforts to keep the Torah by following the tradition of the elders…was realized around the table.  In short, Pharisees desired to eat every meal in a condition of purity equal to that of the Priests eating meals in the temple.  So, the table was finally the issue and arena of conflict” between them and Jesus.

When he is challenged by the Pharisees and Scribes for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus’ response goes to the heart of the gospel: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means,” he says, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).

In this morning’s text there are three key characters in the little drama enacted in Simon’s courtyard – a Pharisee, a woman of ill repute, and a Rabbi.  Each character is a person and a representative.

First, the Pharisee.  What do we know of him?  He is a man of wealth and social standing in his community. What he, as a person of standing and as the host, does and doesn’t do in the story shapes the action.  He invites the Rabbi to dine with him.  This accords with the custom of the time, in which an itinerant Rabbi would be invited to the home of one of the town leaders to dine and to dispense his wisdom.  These dinner events would be pretty much open to the whole town, though it was clearly established who would sit –  actually recline – at the table, leaning on one elbow, feet trailing out behind, and who would stand around the outside, gathering in crumbs of food and wisdom.

The scene is surprising for the time and territory.  The Pharisee would naturally invite this Rabbi who was stirring up the countryside to come to dine with him.  But what the Pharisee does not do is also remarkable and needs some explanation.  He does not follow accepted custom.  He fails to greet his guest with a kiss (a mark of respect which would always be given to a distinguished Rabbi;) he withholds the drop of fragrance with which it was customary to anoint a visitor’s head; and, perhaps most importantly, given the state of Galilean roads (really tracks in the dust) and the simple sandals worn, he neglects the cooling, comforting water bath that would soothe the tired feet of his guest.

Why this rude behavior, we ask?  We can only speculate about the answer:  Is he some sort of agent provocateur, working with the Rabbi’s enemies to entrap him in a statement or action with which they could bring legal charges against him?  One commentator suggests that he may be the kind of small town official who likes to collect celebrities in order to enhance his reputation and sense of importance.  Perhaps he sees his guest as his inferior in terms of age and status, therefore feeling free to dispense with the customs with impunity.  Whatever his motivation, he clearly treats the Rabbi with mixed measures of respect and disrespect.

Now, the woman – she’s a scandal!  Sinner in the text is probably a euphemism for prostitute.  It is problematic for the scene that she would even be there, standing with the crowd around the perimeters of the table. Yet there she was, with her long hair cascading around her face and down her back, in a manner which would scandalize the good citizens of the town.  Perhaps they chalked it up to her notoriety and chose not to see the woman’s outrageous behavior.  (“Oh, it’s her again.  Well what else would you expect from one of her kind.”)

Like the Pharisee, she is remarkable for what she does and does not do.  Spontaneously (or is it by some greater design?) she takes on the host’s responsibilities.  She washes the Rabbi’s feet with her tears and dries them with her hair.  Then, astonishingly, she anoints his feet first with her kisses and then with the concentrated perfume from the small alabaster vial she – as did all Jewish women of the time – wore around her neck.  She does not pay attention to the looks of horror and contempt evident around the crowded table.  She simply acts, from the core of her being, acts of pure devotion in place of the Pharisee’s absent hospitality.  The murmurs of “whore,” “slut,” and “unclean” do not penetrate the security of her rapt fixation as she ministers to the Rabbi.

And what of the Rabbi?  He, too, is remarkable for what he does and does not do in this tense and potentially explosive situation.  First, in response to the murmurs of the crowd and the Pharisee’s open proclamation of disapproval – “If this fellow was a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of a person this woman is who keeps touching him, for she is a bad woman.”  (The Pharisee’s comment, by the way, is an indication of the kind of “show” he expected from his visiting celebrity – “Be clairvoyant.  Do magic tricks.  Predict the future.”  Or like the Herod of “Jesus, Christ, Superstar,” “Prove to me that your no fool, Walk across my swimming pool.”  But this fellow, this fake, can’t even recognize an outcast prostitute when she approaches him.)

The Rabbi calls the Pharisee by name, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  He proceeds to tell him the tale of two debtors whose debts, though widely disparate, are both forgiven by the generous lender.  “Who then” the Rabbi asks, a hush settling over the murmuring throng, “will love him more?”  Simon, though a little wary of the Rabbi’s trap, plunges ahead.  “I presume the one to whom the greater favor was shown.”  “Right,” the Rabbi says, and then he springs the trap on the blindly self-righteous Pharisee.  “You did not even offer me common courtesy, let alone the recognition my position warrants, while this woman, whom you have condemned as evil, has recognized me and treated me accordingly.  So her sins, however great they may be, are forgiven for she has recognized the love which has come to her and has embraced it wholeheartedly.”   Unfortunately, the Rabbi’s recognition of her acts of devotion only holds the crowd’s attention for a moment, then they are back to murmuring.  But, in that blessed moment, some have seen loving kindness and holy acts of beauty, and their lives are forever transformed.

You see kindness is not really random nor are acts of beauty ever senseless in the presence of the love of God.  The closed system into which the Rabbi and the woman have entered, with its rigid sense of class and resultant grinding poverty for many, leaves so little room for kindness or beauty, and judges these qualities harshly when they appear but do not conform to accepted practice.  There is passion, even eroticism, in the woman’s behavior.  She offers back to the Rabbi what she has caught from his perceptive gaze that sees right through her sins to the kind and beautiful being God has created.  How ironic that it is such love and passion which actually turn the world right side up!  In the end, most of these folks don’t want their world reversed.  In their rejection of love and passion, of kindness and beauty, they will eventually shout for the Rabbi’s crucifixion.

Like Simon, the Pharisee, they cannot see the sin of their own self-righteousness nor the evil and oppressive ways in which they attempt to hold God’s precious gift of life in inflexible vessels of their own construction, whether these vessels are made of alabaster or purity.  Surely the world is too chaotic and frightening a place to live without some structure, but the risk we take in trying to make creation conform to our own will is that we will not be open to God’s coming, especially when that coming may seem random and senseless – like taking on human form, being born in a stable, working and living among the poor and outcast, teaching peace and love, hanging on a cross, or vacating a stone-sealed tomb.  May we, like the woman in the story recognize our flaws and accept our limitations so that when we find God at our tables, in our work or play, within our joy and tears, suffering with our sisters and brothers, we will be able to respond like her.  Where we find God’s love poured out in our midst, may we be free to pour out our own lives in kindness and acts of beauty.

Justice & Grace

13-06-01.mixon.fwPastor Tripp just left for three weeks in Virginia.  We will miss him while he is back East teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal) but we are delighted that Naomi Schulz, one of our interns for the coming church year is able and willing to step in.  She will be with us for the first cookout of the season and will work with education for children, youth and adults for the next two Sundays and then one more Sunday in August.  We are grateful to have such a delightful fill-in while Pastor Tripp is gone.

This coming Sunday our theme is “Justice and Grace.”  We will focus on Luke’s version of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet.  It is a powerful story, one of my favorites.  The drama includes a religious leader who thinks he has things all figured out, a woman of questionable reputation with a great and expanding soul, and Jesus who sees through them both, calling the first to accountability for his neglect of hospitality and offering the second forgiveness and healing as she practices both repentance and hospitality at a remarkably deep level.  The lack of love closes Simon, the Pharisee, to the miracle of grace being enacted in his dining room; her openness to love transforms the woman’s life and makes her whole.

In Adult Spiritual Formation we will consider some of the work of the eminent psychiatrist and spiritual director, Gerald May (brother of Rollo May.)  One of the texts for my program in Spiritual Direction is his book, The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need.  In this book he writes about the ways in which love is foundational to our human existence and how the best of our living flows from that source when we let it.

Come Sunday at 10 AM and bring someone along to share the morning with you.

May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.
Pastor Rick

Widows and orphans

Cathleen Falsani, Tripp Hudgins, Naomi Schultz
Jan Gunderson (piano), Cathleen Falsani (front), Tripp Hudgins (banjo)

We had a wonderful time last Sunday with Cathleen Falsani.  Both in worship and in Adult Spiritual Formation we benefited from her wisdom and grace.  We were blessed to have her here because she is a friend of Pastor Tripp’s and was in the Bay Area for a series of concerts by Mumford and Sons.  If you have not had a chance to read her book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide to Grace, we purchased 5 copies for the library so one should be available soon.  We will finish up our conversations concerning the book as well as Cathleen’s sharing with us in this Sunday’s Adult Spiritual Formation.

The worship theme for Sunday is “Widows and Orphans.”  It is interesting that both the reading from Hebrew scripture and from the gospel deal with widows who lose their only sons, only to have them raised from the dead – one by Elijah, the other by Jesus.  Both are miracles of compassion.  In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the phrase “widows and orphans” can stand for all those who are poor and outcast, desperate and downtrodden.  Care for widows, orphans and the stranger in your midst was clearly mandated as righteousness.  It was rooted in the expectation that gracious hospitality would be a way of life in the arid, hostile environment of the ancient Middle East.

Come Sunday at 10 AM and bring someone along to share the morning with you.

May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.
Pastor Rick

Summer is here! Summer is here!

tripp-mandolinFriends of God,

Summer is here! Summer is here! Memorial Day weekend has come and gone. It’s official. You may now wear your summer togs. Now, I know this seems a strange thing to say in California where it may well be possible to wear your
summer togs all year long except in the summer months when the marine layer rolls in and the coldest winter we’ll spend is summer in San Francisco. Fortunately, we’re a little south of The City and can enjoy the heat. I hope you all have some summer fun planned!

My summer has shaped up to be a full one. I know some of you have heard. I’ll be in and out some this summer teaching and delivering a paper (the woes of Ph.D. studenthood). One of our seminary interns, Naomi Schulz, will be filling in for me while I am away a couple of weeks in June and the first weekend of August. She is a talented pastor and will be a great addition to our community this fall. This will be your chance to get to know her ahead of time and show her some of our awesome hospitality.

There’s lots going on this summer!

  • Friday, June 14 – Pot Luck Cook-out!
  • Sunday, July 7 – All-Church Cook-out and Celebration!
  • Friday, August 16, – Pot Luck Cook-out!

More events are in the works. We’re contemplating a baseball game. There are many summer camps with room left as well. If you would like to attend summer camp, please let me know. We can help you with a scholarship.

The summer is a great time for family, friends, and (it would seem) cook-outs. We hope you will join us in times of fellowship.

Peace and All Good Things,
Pastor Tripp

June is bustin’ out all over

13-06-01.mixon.fw“June is bustin’ out all over.” In the midst of a heat wave, windows are open to catch any little breeze, everything is green and blooming, allergies are operating full throttle, and we’ve entered, post Pentecost, that long, lazy season in the liturgical life of the church called Ordinary Time. Ordinary though it may be, we still have some excitement on the horizon. The first Sunday of this month we will be privileged by the presence of Cathleen Falsani, sharing with us some mutual experiences of grace. “Story = Grace” is our theme. This is the culmination of a month‐long study of her excellent book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide to Grace. I commend it you as ideal summer reading. One of the key things Cathleen says in her book is this: “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve. Benign goodwill. Unprovoked compassion. The unearnable gift.”

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound…” Indeed, it is a sweet sound, sometimes a sound too sweet for our very pragmatic understanding. We all know that salvation can’t be earned but do we really believe it? Do we grasp how thoroughly God loves and accepts us with whatever our limitations and failures? It’s often a struggle to let grace enfold us, to feel its warmth, to bask in its light, to let its healing wash over us, making us whole. So we fail to see that amazing grace is around and within us in the simplest beauties and wonders of daily life – the tree, the flower, the breeze that blows, the stream that flows, the warm smile, the helping hand, the love that forms and sustains friendship and builds community.

Later this month, I will represent us at the inaugural session of a new phase in American Baptist life. The biennial meeting will no longer be a business meeting for the denomination. It is now called a Mission Summit and is designed to inspire
and build up the missional life of the ABC‐USA. This is an interesting experiment in a way to do church at a denominational level that will enable all American Baptists to work together in the service of God. I am very pleased
that Don Ng, the distinguished pastor of First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco, is the nominee for President of the ABC‐USA and is taking a key leadership role in this effort at denominational transformation. Don is an old friend whose vision and judgment I trust deeply.

It is interesting that this Mission Summit (and the next, in 2015) will be held in Overland Park, Kansas, a place where I lived from 1950 to 1953. Some of my earliest memories are of those days when my father was the founding pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. So, this represents a kind of homecoming for me. I hope to attend that church on Sunday morning of the Biennial. In addition, I will attend the pre‐biennial theology conference at Central Baptist Seminary (the school from which my father earned 3 degrees,) led by our friend, Jennifer Davidson, from ABSW. Then I will stay for the board meetings of the Association of Welcoming Baptists. It will be a full and, I trust, rich week. Wally Bryen will preach on June 23 in my absence.

What else can we say about June? There will be an intergenerational cookout and time for volleyball and visiting on Friday, June 14, in honor of Father’s Day. The church choir will end its season on June 16. Adult Spiritual Formation for
June will include our Sunday with Cathleen Falsani; a follow‐up on our Sunday with her and our study of her book on June 9; some reflection on The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need by Gerald May, one of the books from my spiritual direction program; and a last go for the season at “The Newspaper in One Hand…an occasional discussion of what’s happening in the world in light of the gospel.”

And there will be singing. Jan reminds us that The Bay Choral Guild, the group with which she sings will be performing in our sanctuary on Sunday, June 9 at 4:30 PM. The concert is entitled “Our American Heritageʺ and will feature music
from colonial days to the present. You won’t want to miss the wonderful opportunity right here in our building. And if you’re feeling a little more adventuresome, The Choral Project, the group in which Dan Cudworth, Ruth Winter (who is helping us out in the church choir through June) and I all sing will be presenting concerts in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz on June 8 and 9. Our concerts, entitled “Earthsongs” will cover a cross section of music from the classical to world music to pop music. It will be a fun event as well. More detailed information is available for both groups is available elsewhere in the  June Spire.

Which brings us back to grace. For me there is no more open door to grace than in the experience of music – heard and performed. I thank God for all the amazing music that has graced my life and, I hope, yours as well. May our lives flow on in endless song and may the God of grace author the music of all our days.

Pastor Rick

“Story = Grace”

13-05-22.pentecost_banner.fwSunday we spent the morning with the Trinity and with grace.  The children and youth decorated the hallway with their artistic comments on the Trinity as we wrestled with it in worship.  God in relationship inspires our efforts to be in relationship – not only with God but also with one another as children of God.  At the end of the service we all gathered back in the sanctuary to celebrate Jane and Jin Chin for the wonderful work they as do as volunteers for FBCPA.  We are deeply grateful for the way they look after our finances, provide a photographic record of our “family” and otherwise keep track of our life together – past, present and future!  If you didn’t get to see the “Chin picture board” Oleta made, we will have it again Sunday.

This coming Sunday we are privileged and delighted to have Cathleen Falsani share the morning with us.  We have been reading and discussing Cathleen’s beautiful book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide to Grace, the past three weeks in Adult Spiritual Formation.  Now we have the opportunity to engage her in person.  She will be featured in an intergenerational worship service on the theme “Story = Grace” and will lead the conversation in Adult Spiritual Formation.  This is a rare opportunity for us to engage a significant and talented Christian thinker and writer.  I hope you all will make a point of being here and will bring along others to share the experience with you.  See you Sunday at 10.

May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.
Pastor Rick