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

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)

Note from Pastor Rick (3/24/2017)

My apologies for a late midweek this week. I have a friend visiting from China and have been showing him some of the sights. Fortunately, we have had a couple of lovely days for exploring.

This week takes us further into John’s gospel as we consider what I like to call “The Trial of One Born Blind.” It is another of those long, complicated stories that the writer of John tells to give us insight into both Jesus’ ministry and his teaching. The miracles mean something and it is the meaning that seems much more important to Jesus than the acts themselves. Even after 2000 years, are we any more likely than the first disciples not only to see Jesus’ signs but also to grasp their significance for his project of building up God’s Beloved Community? Though a poor, blind beggar, John’s witness comes off with more understanding and cleverness than the religious experts who interrogate him. Would that we might have such a clear view of Jesus and what he was about.

In Adult Spiritual Formation, I am delighted that our guest will be Lisa Olson, the Development Director for the “10 Books a Home” program. If you remember, this year ’special offering for January, sponsored by our kids, was for this organization. We are eager to have Lisa share more with us about the program’s structure and goals as well as its volunteer opportunities. Everyone is invited to come hear more about, “10 Books a Home.”

So, see you Sunday at 10 AM for Worship, Sunday School, and Adult Spiritual Formation. Invite someone to share the time with you.

Our theme for this year is “All Are Welcome in this Place.” Let’s make certain that it is so.
Pastor Rick

Note from Pastor Rick (3/15/2017)

As we  move further into this Lenten season, along with Jesus, we encounter the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Hers is one of the richly developed stories in John’s gospel through which the writer lays out his view of Jesus’ ministry. Especially important in this meeting is the significant breaking down of barriers. In the most improbable of encounters, we find Jesus talking not only to a woman but to a Samaritan. Boundaries of gender and race, of politics and culture are crossed as he shares with her deep insights into eternal life (John’s image for God’s Beloved Community.) The disciples are astonished but the people of Sychar come quickly to see him as the “Savior of the World.”

In Adult Spiritual Formation last Sunday, we will continue our exploration of some of the most challenging of Jesus’ Parables. This week we will focus on “The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31), “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” Matthew 18:23-35, and “The Parable of the Talents,” Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27. This study has led to some fascinating discovery and very spirited conversation. Everyone is invited to share this exploration. You won’t find it difficult to “plug in.”

So, see you Sunday at 10 AM for Worship, Sunday School, and Adult Spiritual Formation. Invite someone to share the time with you.

Our theme for this year is “All Are Welcome in this Place.” Let’s make certain that it is so.

Pastor Rick   

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.

Note from Pastor Rick (3/8/2017)

On this International Women’s Day, we celebrate all the incredible hands and hearts that hold up half the sky and we pray that we will hear women’s wisdom, letting it shape our lives. Thanks also to Pastor Gregory for his leadership in worship last Sunday and for his stimulating sermon on “Temptation and Resistance.”

As we continue our Lenten journey, we will focus on several key texts, familiar stories from the gospel of John. This Sunday’s text includes one of the best known verses in the Bible – John 3:16. What is it that Jesus is trying to get across to Nicodemus, who secretly seeks him out under the cover of darkness? “What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-6). “Open your eyes, Nicodemus. No skulking around. Can’t you see, you teacher of Israel, that God loves the world? In such love, creation is continually renewed. You, too, must be born again, Nicodemus, renewed every day, as we move toward the fulfillment of God’s Beloved Community.”

In Adult Spiritual Formation last Sunday, we had a good look at the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 10:1-16). There was spirited discussion and we decided to spend the next few weeks looking specifically at some of the more challenging parables Jesus told. This week we will focus on two – “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants” (Mark 12:1-12) and “The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31). Everyone is invited to share this exploration with us.

So, see you Sunday at 10 AM for Worship, Sunday School, and Adult Spiritual Formation. Invite someone to share the time with you.

Our theme for this year is “All Are Welcome in this Place.” Let’s make certain that it is so.

Pastor Rick   

Not As the World Gives (5/1/2016)

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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Text: John 14:25-27; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:2

Today we transition from a month-long emphasis on love of the earth and creation care to things that make for peace. The theme for May is “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” In part, this new emphasis is shaped by this month’s special offering for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz. We have been a supporting congregation of this organization for many years.

What I am wondering, as we consider peace today, is what does the word mean to you? Off the top of your head, what do you imagine or think or feel when you hear the word peace?

Today’s gospel reading comes from the book of John. We used it as our Words of Assurance after Reflecting on our Need for God. It is interesting that this text and the Ancient Word from Revelation are actually lectionary readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter. Is it coincidence that the lectionary would give us such peace laden texts on the first Sunday of “Peace Month”? or is it the work of that Advocate, the Holy Spirit, trying to teach us something about peace and peace-making?

Most often I use these words from the fourteenth chapter of John for funerals and memorial services. That seems to be an appropriate time to call forth peace, especially peace that offers comfort and soothes the grieving heart. Jesus begins his teaching, recorded in this chapter, by assuring his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In God’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3). Many a grieving soul has found peaceful comfort in these words through the centuries. And surely this one way to look at peace.

But this time, reading this text, the sentence “I do not give to you as the world gives” stood out for me. What exactly does Jesus mean when he makes that claim or what was the writer of John trying to say when he wrote down these words? “Not as the world gives” – the peace that Jesus promises is something different than what we usually think of as peace. It is other than the absence of violence or freedom from struggle. It is more than comfort and assurance. The ancient Hebrew word used here is shalom. Shalom is something like the Hawaiian word aloha. It carries multiple meanings. It can be used to hello or good-bye. In addition to peace, it carries connotations of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being. When Jesus gifts his followers with is peace, it is something more than what the world has to offer.

Robert Kysar writes that “…the peace that you and I most commonly seek – is best described as the absence of things. The absence of war, the absence of crime and strife and violence, the absence of pain, conflicts, struggles, unfulfilled desires.” In fact, he says, “It almost sounds as if the peace we seek is something like a vacuum…What we strive for is the absence of all struggle which sounds like the absence of life itself” (Robert Kysar, Preaching John, p. 108). And Geoffrey Hoare observes that “Many people yearn for peace in the world’s terms: cessation of conflict, whether psychological tension or warfare; a sense of calm or a serenity of spirit” (Geoffrey M. St. J. Hoare in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, p.494).

“No, not this,” Jesus says, “not as the world gives.” Both Kysar and Hoare insist that what Jesus offer is not cessation or absence but rather it is presence, the presence of God though the Holy Spirit. The Jesus Way will continue to be available to those who embrace it and follow it. He is not going away; he is going on ahead, and where he goes, we, too, may go,  in the power of the Spirit.

In Earth Month we tried to emphasize the spiritual and theological grounding for love of the earth and creation care. God made it; God delights in it; God loves it; God cares for it and, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, we are invited to approach creation in similar ways. Love it, care for it, delight in it, even join in the ongoing process of creation. God is present with us in the world all around us; we are encouraged to embrace that presence, to live into all the possibilities it offers to us.

Part of living with God’s ongoing presence in our lives is, then, to live in peace, in shalom – in harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being – with God, with ourselves, with our neighbor, with our enemy, with all creation. Again, this is not nothing, absence, cessation; it is something, something to give our lives to as we walk the Jesus Way. Remember how Genesis gave us a vision of the goodness, the well-being, the peace, if you will, of creation when God first laid it out and breathed life into it? Now the writer of Revelation offers another vision of something similar.

Beyond the pain and struggle of life as the world knows it, there is a promised land, a new creation, a heavenly city. Yes, it’s always risky to talk about heaven. Too many of us have been indoctrinated to believe that it is somewhere out there beyond this life. “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.” But what if it just isn’t so? What if heaven is right here in our midst if we’d look more closely. “Your Beloved Community come on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus teaches us to pray. Not “just hang on; it will be over soon and you’ll get your robe and crown over there.” Nor does Jesus offer peace somewhere down the road and beyond the sunset. He offers it in the here and now.

This vision of the new Jerusalem is a poetic description of the Beloved Community, not unlike Isaiah’s dream of God’s Holy Mountain where they neither hurt or destroy because they recognize that God’s presence covers the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Jesus gifts his followers – and us – with that same presence, and he offers it now, not later.

In the vision of Revelation, ”…the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” In the middle of the vision we find the river of the water of life and the tree of life spread out on either side, offering all the nourishment we could ever need or want. Even the leaves are for the healing of the nations. The difference between the peace that Jesus offers and that which the world chases is in its great “Yes” to life. Faced with his own imminent death, Jesus says “Yes” to life. The powers and principalities have no ultimate say in his life. He is at peace in God’s embracing presence. It’s a different kind of peace – not as the world gives – and he offers it to us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen.