A Servant King (11/20/2016)

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-8; Luke 23:32-43; Colossians 1:9-20

This is one of those hybrid Sundays, one in which several not obviously related foci converge and challenge the worship planner to come up with something that at appears coherent. I told Jan that I had all the hymns carefully chosen for “Reign of Christ” Sunday, the celebratory culmination of the liturgical year, when I remembered that this was also Stewardship or Gratitude Sunday as well as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It is important in the traditions of our congregation to recognize all these events. So back to the drawing board to ensure that the Reign of Christ, stewardship, and Thanksgiving were all acknowledged in today’s service. If you’re missing “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” I suggest attending tonight’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Service in which it will be the opening hymn.

Continue reading A Servant King (11/20/2016)

Itching Ears (10/16/2016)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 16, 2016

Texts: Psalm 119:97-104; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 18:1-8; 2 Timothy 4:1-5

I probably should have entitled this sermon something like, “Itching Ears and Open Hearts,” because I think each of the lectionary texts this week shows deeper interest in the condition of the human heart than the state of our ears. I rarely try to weave all the texts for a given week into one sermon, but these four texts seem to invite it.

To begin with, Psalm 119, which is a kind of love song or hymn to God’s law is much less concerned with the letter of that law than its spirit. The section chosen for today begins, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” Now I don’t know about you but I don’t generally think of the law as something to love. It will take some time and effort to understand the 17 ballot measures that may or may not become law on November 8, but I don’t plan to spend all of the next 24 days meditating on them, though I may have more to say about them between now and November 8. I’ve already grown so tired and disgusted with the overgrown and misleading advertising for the various measures that I’ve taken to muting all political ads as soon as they appear on my television screen.

Continue reading Itching Ears (10/16/2016)

Peace Now! (5/29/16)

candle and globeA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 29, 2016

Text: Micah 4:1-5; Luke 6:26-37; Romans 12:9-21 (The Message)

Are you tired of talking about peace? It’s been a month now. Are we any closer to achieving peace than we were when we started? People are still warring on a variety of fronts. Ancient enmity keeps people glaring at each other across chasms of hatred or pretending they are safe behind walls that separate. Sexism, homo-hated, and racism are all still rampant. The gulf widens daily between the haves and have nots. People are fed up with governments atrophied over the silliest self-absorption of special interest groups and childish grabs for power by politicians of every persuasion.

We have looked at visions of the Holy Mountain and the Beloved Community where peace is promised. We have heard Jesus and Paul and the prophets proclaim peace as a way of life. We have considered the lives of those who have committed themselves to peacemaking. But it is also true that we aren’t there yet, that we haven’t lived up to our high calling, that we haven’t really given ourselves to peacemaking. At least, it doesn’t appear that much, if anything, has changed as we come to the fifth Sunday in a row in which we’ve tried to say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

It makes me think of Jeremiah, that prophet of weeping and woe, who stands in the city square and cries out, “Thus says God of hosts: Glean thoroughly as a vine the remnant of Israel; like a grape-gatherer, pass your hand again over its branches. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen. The word of God is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it. But I am full of the wrath of God; I am weary of holding it in. Pour it out on the children in the street, and on the gatherings of young men as well; both husband and wife shall be taken, the old folk and the very aged. Their houses shall be turned over to others, their fields and wives together; for I will stretch out my hand against the inhabitants of the land, says God. For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore, they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says God. Thus says God: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” Also I raised up sentinels for you: “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” But they said, “We will not give heed” (Jeremiah 6:9-17).

Well there’s a gloomy picture from the passionate prophet. I don’t mean to draw a direct parallel between our own situation and Jeremiah’s words to an ancient people threatened with imminent assault from a great power, destruction of their land and way of life and exile to a strange place. For one thing, we are situated in the midst of the most powerful nation on earth. Nor do we live in a theocracy in which we believe that God directly pulls the strings that determine our fate or the fate of the world. Oh, I know we make a nominal claim to being a Christian nation, but, really, do we live our lives or conduct the affairs of state as if we were in covenant with God? This is not the Promised Land nor do we inhabit the shining city set on a hill.

Still there is truth for us in this ancient word. When peace and justice are discussed, how many close their ears, refusing to listen? How often is God’s word of compassion and care, of steadfast love and mercy scorned? It sounds as if Jeremiah is “mad as hell” and “not going to take it anymore.” Do we ever feel like that? Whether it’s God’s wrath or Jeremiah’s own disgust with his recalcitrant people, the threats are ominous. Neither the young nor the old is spared; nor is their property.

What’s the problem as the prophet sees it? “… from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.” Am I wrong in thinking Jeremiah’s indictment might speak to us, might say something about us, especially in the current election cycle?

You know I’m not going to argue that God is out to get us or that God wants to punish us for our wickedness. That may be Jeremiah’s view but I believe that the tragedies of daily life are largely our own doing. If there is “punishment,” it will be the inevitable consequence of the choices we make. In time we will reap what we sow. I think the prophet is on to something when he says, “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” The question is whether or not we will heed the warning walk in God’s good way.

OK, I will confess that I’m playing a bit of a game here. I didn’t really expect much change in a month’s worth of focusing on peace. Maybe the problem is I should have expected more. But we’ve made a start and, as with last month’s focus on love of the earth and creation care, this is not the last time we will consider peace. I do believe that the practice of peacemaking is fundamental to our Christian identity, especially when we think of peace as shalom, which includes harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being.

In a book entitled, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, Lisa Sharon Harper writes, “Shalom is what God declared. Shalom is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Shalom is when all people have enough. It’s when families are healed. It’s when churches, schools, and public policies protect human dignity. Shalom is when the image of God is recognized in every single human. Shalom is our calling as followers of Jesus’ gospel. It is the vision God set forth in the Garden and the restoration God desires for every relationship” (Quoted by Linda Bergeon in the FCBC Newsletter, May 26, 2016). That does sound like good news if we could just play our part in making it real.

God’s good way, the way of shalom – do we throw up our hands in frustration and despair because it is not current reality or do we give ourselves more ardently to making peace now? All of our readings from this morning lead toward peace, the shalom of God’s Beloved Community. Do we believe it is possible or do we cry “peace, peace when there is no peace” and thereby thwart healing the wounds of God’s people and all creation?

Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Micah pauses in the midst of his hard word to envision a world in which instruments of war will be transformed to tools for peace and people will study war no more, a time in which every single human being, no exception, will be free to sit under their own vine and fig tree, utterly unafraid.

Jesus encourages his followers to “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you.” The irony of this wisdom is that it is impossible to hold as enemy another whom you hold in love. As the poet, Emily Dickinson, with her own wisdom, wrote:

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love, but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

“The little toil of love…was large enough…” Could we make the same claim for ourselves? “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it,” Paul says to the church in Rome. There is the challenge. How do we ensure that love lives at the center of who we are? The first week Jieun Lee played her violin for us and I shared that she was on her way to play at Carnegie Hall, I told that joke about how one gets to Carnegie Hall. When the young tourist asks the old musician how to get to Carnegie Hall, the response is “Practice!” I know it’s a tired old joke, but isn’t there also wisdom in it? How do you establish love at the center of who you are?  How do you learn to love your enemy and do good to those who hate you? How do you internalize the Golden Rule? Practice, friends, practice. I know of no other way. And isn’t that a sort of peace now? Practice it as best you can. Live as if it was really so in your daily life.

Paul exhorts the Roman church to just such practice. “Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.  Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Holy One, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.  Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.  Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do… if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise your enemy with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.” “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

I can hear you. Honestly, I can hear me. This is hard work. I don’t know if I can live into it, loving from the center of my being and practicing the things that make for peace. The issues of peace and justice are so much larger than I. I don’t even know where to begin. Well, we can start with the ballot we cast next Tuesday and ask ourselves to be cognizant of concerns for peace and justice, compassion and love, as we mark our ballots. We might even pray over them. We can lobby our leaders for peace now and work to elect leaders who are committed to peace and justice. Then we can practice the things that make for peace in our lives now – at home, at school, at work, at play, as we walk the streets and encounter every aspect of God’s creation. We really can.

I want to close by sharing a little story from our friend Greg Griffey. It is both simple and counterintuitive, unless you’re actively trying to let love flow from the center of your being and practice the things that make for peace. Greg writes:

My neighbor in the waiting area at Bubbles Car Wash: “Donald Trump will become President because he’s not afraid to say what’s in his mind! People want that!”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Neighbor: “Like when he called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas. He rises above all that political correctness bull that we’re being fed and calls it like he sees it!”

Me: “It feels to me that name calling relieves us from the vulnerability of hard conversations by keeping us ‘above’ the other person.

Neighbor: “I guess you’re a politically correct liberal.”

Me: “I try to be kind and understanding of others, including you. Tell me more about your hopes for our country.”

Neighbor: “I want my kids to be safe and have opportunities.”

Me: “You love your kids.”

Neighbor: “Yep! And you?”

Me: “I don’t have kids, but I have a husband and a mom and dad back home. I worry about them every day. I want them to be safe and to have opportunities, too.”

Neighbor: “Looks like we have something in common.”

Me: “We both love our families and we’ve both judged each other today.”

Neighbor: “I guess you like Bernie?”

Me: “I like Bernie. I also believe that real hope doesn’t come from Bernie. It comes from you and me when we can enter into real relationship and know that we each speak from a place of integrity.”

Car Attendant: “Toyota Yaris!”

Me: “That’s my car. I’m Greg, by the way.”

Neighbor: “I’m David. Pleased to meet you, Greg.”

Me: “Pleased to meet you, too, David. Best to your kids!”

We shake hands. I slip the attendant a tip and wonder about his hopes, too. Then I wonder how he affords to live in the Bay Area on a car wash attendant’s wage. I get in my car and drive off, haunted by it all.

There are many places where this interchange might have taken a different, more hostile turn. Greg took a chance, made himself vulnerable, and something miraculous happened. A small miracle, yes, but a miracle none the less – a miracle of shalom, a miracle of peace-making. I’m not nominating Greg for sainthood just yet, but how often might we make this sort of difference in a simple yet challenging human interaction? “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Find shalom, well-being for your loved ones and your neighbors and, yes, your enemies. Peace now. Is it possible? You tell me. Amen.

Hope Bubbles Up

Love Came DownA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Text: Psalm 25:1-10; Jeremiah 33:14-16

When I suggested “Love Came Down” as our Advent theme this year, Gregory raised a question as to whether or not this theme is too tied to the archaic notion of a three-storied universe. I don’t think I see the universe in those terms but his question did cause me to pause and ponder. Much of our literature and imagery reflects heaven above, hell below and earth caught somewhere in the middle. We don’t give so much attention any more to hell, that underworld burning with fire and brimstone, but heaven, as the place God dwells, is still generally aspired to, some place beautiful, above and beyond. I think we are still more drawn to images of the vast and unimaginable expanse of space than we are to think on the molten mass at the center of the earth.

However, I don’t believe we have to posit a literal three-storied universe to believe that there is life, that there are qualities, that there is spirit, beyond what we know well. There is mystery, maybe even a little magic, in creation that is beyond our grasp. It’s not that we have no access to the mystery, that we are never drawn to the magic, that we are never touched by the Holy, but there is a sense that some things, some One, some Presence, comes to us from beyond ourselves. We are challenged and, when open, changed in encounter with the sacred Other.

This conversation with Gregory led to a rather playful collection of themes or titles for the services and sermons of this Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season –“Hope Bubbles Up,” “Peace Blows In,” “Joy Bursts Forth,” etc. Check your Advent calendar for a complete listing. Hope, peace, joy, love, Christ, Word, light – each of these meaningful metaphors of the season in some sense comes to us from somewhere else – from above, below, afar, near at hand. They come to us in ways familiar and totally unexpected. Perhaps this is central to the wonder of the season.

The notion that hope bubbles up comes partly from wondering whether all the wonders of the season need to come from above. If not, what would be the opposite of above? Below? I began to imagine what grows and blossoms from the soil. Flora of every sort, even those that push their way through the frozen ground of a bleak midwinter or a shoot breaking forth from a stump thought long dead. Dust to dust, we are told, so the blinded hymn writer sings, “I lay in dust life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.” Then our Seasons of the Spirit material offered the powerful image of volcanic activity pictured on the back cover of your bulletin which made me think of Old Faithful and the geo-thermal power of geysers bubbling up from below.

There is a very real sense in which hope is born deep inside us and bubbles up to the surface. As does the psalmist, we live with a longing for something more in our lives. “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” Whatever we have acquired or become, it is never quite sufficient. Echoing the psalmist, Augustine also expressed this longing when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Something in the depths of our being remembers and longs for the fullness of the creation we were meant to be.

This longing is never more real than in the season of Advent when we wonder, we watch, we wait in anticipation again of the coming of the Christ, the Word made flesh, the Holy one in human form who comes to redeem the whole creation. “Oh holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin. and enter in; be born in us today.” We live with a longing that the Source of our being will come close to us from above or beyond or deep within and touch us in ways that will cleanse us, heal us and make us whole. There is hope that we may still be all that we were created to be by the Creator of stars of night, the Giver of life, the Lover of our souls. Is this not that very Holy One to whom the psalmist lifts his soul – the source of truth, of righteousness, of goodness, of mercy, of steadfast love, of salvation? Is this not the God in whom we, too, hold our hope?

“Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our sins and fears release us; Christ, in whom our rest shall be.” We live in a time of fear – fear that threatens to lead to despair – despair, the antithesis of hope. We talked about this Tuesday in Bible study, how fear can control our lives and cause us to turn from this God of justice and compassion to false gods of self-serving security. Let’s build our walls higher and thicker. Surely that will be our salvation. Keep the strangers away, arm the population, lay up for yourself all the earthly treasure you can get your hands on. Remember who’s number one. That will undoubtedly ensure our safety.

But Jeremiah, speaking for God, doesn’t see it that way. We find him under a kind of house arrest. The leaders of his people have been dragged off to exile in Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem looms large on the horizon. This troublesome prophet, who has been harsh in his judgment while weeping bitter tears for his people, suddenly proclaims a remarkable word of hope. From the bottom of the barrel and the depths of his being he asserts that the days are surely coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled and justice and righteousness will rule the land. Has the prophet lost his grip on reality? Has the strain of the work overcome him? Have his own words of gloom and doom done him in?

From somewhere else comes these eloquent, noble words, an amazing confession of trust in the God who holds both the future and the prophet. Jeremiah has been safely centered in God all along. In an even more remarkable witness, Jeremiah does not just proclaim words of hope; he applies them in direct action, he lives them. While his way of life is crumbling around him, his own prospects of exile growing daily, the Babylonians gobbling up the land and destroying its ancient. sacred structures, Jeremiah elects to buy a piece of property. Yes, you heard right. This gloomy, weeping prophet of destruction, in obedience to God’s instruction, chooses to invest in a future that he believes is inevitable. In the end, if this great prophet sees anything at all of the future, he sees Who holds that future and puts his faith in that very One. Just when you think he is going to give up in despair, he expresses his hope by putting his money where his mouth is.

Seeing that hope grows from the ground up, Bruce Epperly writes of our text, “Jeremiah speaks words of hope.  A branch, full of blossoms and eventually fruit, is bursting forth from an arid and broken nation.  Life abounds beneath the current uncertainties.  Life is emerging quietly like the fig tree’s growth and we can open our eyes to the deep down hopefulness of life or live in despair.  There is a future – God has a vision for you, for good not evil, for a future and hope.  This future is not predestined or automatic, but the invitation to become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: The First Sunday of Advent,” November 27, 2012, patheos.com).

Is there anything we can learn from the psalmist’s affirmation and Jeremiah’s living into hope? Will we allow ourselves to become victims of the fear growing all around us or will we say “no” to terrorists and fear mongers of every stripe and “yes” to the hope that bubbles up within as God again comes to us to redeem us? Do we sense that life still abounds beneath our own current threats and uncertainties, that there is a future, that God has a vision for us? Can we yet become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us?

Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place or in the place of the psalmist. What fuels your fears? What feeds your anxiety? What might lead you to despair? Among friends and in a community that cares about you, let yourself consider these things in the safety of this place and time. These things help to make up what Carl Jung calls our “shadow,” those qualities that also linger deep inside and can be highly destructive if left unattended. We need to look closely and try to understand, but we are not to dwell there.

It is important to know what threatens us and frightens us, what stirs our anxieties and fuels our fears. As a paradoxical expression of grace, today’s Words of Preparation suggest that “The power of hope is made more palpable by the fragile circumstances of everyday life. A cancer diagnosis. The loss of job and home. A fight with friends or family. The rejection from a college. A divorce. The death of a loved one.” Is this not what happens to Jeremiah when finds hope bubbling up in the worst of circumstances? Even in the deepest darkness, the Light shines and cannot be overcome.

Finally, these Words of Preparation also remind us that “…often hope comes in small doses and flickering images. Signs that are fleeting and brief, and usually seem insignificant. Advent is a season in which we can cultivate a posture of waiting and watching with hope. It is hope that anchors us – it nourishes us, it sustains us, it keeps our eyes up” (Advent Meditation, d365.org). So, friends, where do you take heart? Where does hope bubble up in you? From the ground of your own being, what glimmers and glows even in the darkness that you might hang your future on? Perhaps you would be willing to share your own word of hope on this first Sunday in Advent.

It is my longing in this Advent season that we will find hope born deep inside each of us, hope that bubbles up to bring about the future that God imagined for us and all creation from the beginning of time. May hope anchor us, nourish us, sustain us and keep our eyes looking up or down or wherever it is we find hope bubbling. Amen.

To Be God’s People (February 1, 2015)

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA, Sunday, February 1 2015

Texts: Jeremiah 34:31-34; Mark 4:26-34; 1 Peter 2:9-10

 

“We are the people of God, come to this hallowing place. We are the body of Christ, bonded together by grace.” We will close our service today with this lovely hymn, written by David Bartlett and John Landgraff for another beloved congregation, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland. I especially like the lilt of this refrain which helps set the tone for our theme for this year – “To Be God’s People.”

 

In one sense, of course, we are God’s people because all of creation comes from God and returns to God. We are beloved children, made in the image and likeness of God, the same God who made the “blue sky, the delicate flowers of the tulip poplar tree, the distant blue hills, the sweet-smelling air full of brilliant light, the bickering flycatchers, the lowing cattle and the quails that whistle over there.” Still, as did Jesus himself, we also grow and mature into a deeper understanding of what it means to be God’s people. We are both blessed and called to be God’s people.

 

The text that I’ve selected to support the theme is 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of the shadows into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” What a great gift and rich responsibility – to be God’s people. Obviously the audience to which the letter is addressed knew a time when they did not see themselves as God’s people nor did they know God’s mercy. There was a time when they lurked in the shadows but now they live in God’s glorious light. They are called together in order to proclaim the mighty acts of God as they grow into their understanding of what it means to be God’s people.

 

The risk in this text is that “chosen” is a loaded term. The Hebrew people, as well people of other lands and cultures, including the one in which we live, have believed themselves to be God’s chosen people. This belief has caused a lot of grief when people were convinced they had “God on their side.” It is important to remember that when God calls on any of us to carry responsibility for spreading God’s light and love, goodness and grace, righteousness and mercy over the face of the earth, we must be careful not hear this call as an affirmation of superiority. To be chosen is not to be elevated, rather it is to be beloved. It is a call to humble service for God to others of God’s family everywhere, especially those who still dwell in the shadows and have not known mercy. We may be set aside to do a certain task but it never makes us any better than any other member of God’s family. The very essence of grace is God’s unconditional love and compassion for all that God has made. It is always gift and never merited.

 

This is essentially the word and the way that Jesus came to teach. Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus truly was a master-rabbi, capable of transforming people’s lives with a message of unfathomed depth and unexpected imagination. But what was the substance of his message? What was his point? Sooner or later,” McLaren claims, anyone who came to know Jesus would hear one phrase repeated again and again: the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 103-104). It seems to me that claiming the kingdom of God is the primary work of the people of God. This is the task to which we have been called.

 

In today’s Words of Preparation, McLaren makes it clear that “for Jesus the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It wasn’t a distant future reality. It was at hand, or within reach, today.” It is not something we merely hope for; it is something we commit our lives to bringing about in the here and now. I know kingdom language is not as meaningful now as it has been in the past. To claim the God’s reality as a kingdom was a direct challenge to the kingdoms of this world. It was a shocking reversal of accepted reality. God rules a kingdom to which all the kingdoms of the world are subject, to which all earthly power is beholden.

 

For contemporary ears and minds, McLaren suggests some alternative terms – “nation [of God], state [of God], government [of God], society [of God], economic system [of God], culture [of God], superpower [of God], empire [of God] and civilization [of God]…global commonwealth of God, God’s regenerative economy, God’s holy ecosystem, God’s sustainable society or God’s movement for mutual liberation.” I have sometimes used realm or reign of God though those also have kingdom overtones. I experimented with culture for a while, but Betsy Koester took offense at that term. You can experiment with these, see if any of them trip off the tongue and stick in your consciousness. Each captures at least a significant part of what Jesus came to teach. Or come up with a creative phrase of your own. Of all the ones McLaren suggests, I like “God’s beloved community” best. It seems to me the right goal toward which God’s people might aspire. Don’t be surprised to find me trying on that expression moving forward.

 

Friends, God’s beloved community is at hand. “God’s beloved community is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…” “With what can we compare God’s beloved community, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed…the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” To be God’s people and live into God’s beloved community, this is what the Teacher came to teach us.

 

Jeremiah proclaims that God is making a new covenant with the beloved community, a covenant in which God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God’s rule of right living, God’s way of compassion and grace, God’s way of peace and justice…these will be written on the hearts of God’s people and be so familiar that they shape their way of living. Jesus, the teacher, was steeped in this tradition. I can’t believe that Jeremiah’s great promise of the new covenant, the renewed relationship with the Holy One, would not have echoed in the Teacher’s consciousness as he taught about God’s beloved community.

 

Truly, to be God’s people and to commit ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s beloved community, may this be the focus and purpose of our life together in the year ahead. Amen.

 

 

Prophets of Peace (June 29, 2014)

sermonsPROPHETS OF PEACE

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Texts: Jeremiah 28: (1-6) 5-9 (10-17)

 

If you find yourselves wondering about this morning’s text, I will say that I have similar thoughts. What is going on here and how is it relevant for us? I must confess that I chose this text and title in a scramble to provide overdue worship themes for the Spire. As I quickly read through the texts, the phrase “prophets of peace” stood out to me. I thought I ought to be able to pull together a serviceable sermon on this topic. The problem is, I was taken in by the prophecy of Hananiah in much the same way those who first heard his words must have been.

I can’t put all the blame on the creators of the lectionary, but this does seem like one of those times when they have taken a passage out of its context and set it out in a confusing way. What’s going on here? Do you know? Neither did I until did some further research. Today’s text comes in the middle of what one commentator calls a “prophetic throw down” between Jeremiah and Hananiah. There is a setting and an outcome to this confrontation.

To begin with, we need to understand that Jeremiah is a gloomy prophet. His word from God is about destruction and exile. He is not a popular preacher. No one wants to hear what he has to say, and even those who accept his word wince at the language and tone of his proclamation. Remember that the people to whom he brought his prophetic word were covenant people. That is, they had a strong faith claim that God would be their God and they would be God’s people. But what Jeremiah and other prophets insisted on saying to them was that this covenant was conditional. They would be God’s people as long as they kept the covenant. And though God was characterized as being faithful and merciful, gracious in loving kindness, there were also limits to God’s patience.

I think we struggle with this notion whenever we are confronted with these texts from Hebrew scriptures. We want to believe in a God of infinite grace and unconditional love. What are we to do with a God who also judges and punishes? One way to look at the phenomena that is helpful to me is to say that we are either in relationship or we are not. The more we are centered in God, the more likely we are to know infinite grace and unconditional love. The further we wander from the relationship, the less likely we are to know those qualities. There are consequences to being out of relationship, not punishment as much as the absence of grace and love in our lives.

Anyway Jeremiah is carrying a word from God that at least spells out the consequences for the people of Judah whom he insists have broken the covenant and fallen out of relationship with God. Who knows for certain if Yahweh could have saved them from the workings of the Babylonian superpower? But it does seem that the destruction of the land and the exile are a direct result of their engagement in entangling political alliances in an effort to control their destiny.

In the 27th chapter, Jeremiah has instructed the king of Judah and his co-conspirators to give in to Babylon. He claims that it is God’s will that they live under the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar and to dramatize his point he has created a yoke to wear around his own neck. For people who have believed that they were God’s chosen it is inconceivable that the Babylonian king could be God’s servant. Jeremiah is uttering blasphemy.

“In the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord…Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck. Send word to the king of Edom, the king of Moab, the king of the Ammonites, the king of Tyre, and the king of Sidon by the hand of the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to King Zedekiah of Judah…Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomsoever I please.  Now I have given all these lands into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him…

But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the Lord, until I have completed its destruction by his hand.”

For Jeremiah, God’s word, God’s intention is clear – as a religious perspective on what is surely a political reality.

But here is the crux of the conflict with Hananiah. Jeremiah continues his witness,

“You, therefore, must not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ For they are prophesying a lie to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land; I will drive you out, and you will perish. But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, says the Lord, to till it and live there” (From Jeremiah 27).

Now you can imagine this was not a popular word. It did not fit the political or theological mindset of his hearers. This group of kings, perhaps with the aid of Egypt, the other great superpower of the time, believed they could rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and drive him out of their lands. And, of course, each nation believed they had their own god or gods on their side. “Not so,” cries Jeremiah. “Get real or get ready for destruction and exile.”

So in the beginning of chapter 28, the prophet Hananiah calls Jeremiah out, in the temple courtyard, in front of all the people. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” Take that, Jeremiah. The gauntlet is thrown.

Hananiah sounds like a prophet, carries himself like a prophet, uses all the right language. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck… To Jeremiah’s credit, he does not jump to conclusions. When he says, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied…” there may be a note of sarcasm but there also seems to be a note of longing for peace and prosperity. If only what Hananiah is saying could be true.

After Hananiah has dramatically broken the symbolic yoke around Jeremiah’s neck, Jeremiah leaves the scene, not so much in defeat as to wait for the word of God. The work of discernment is essential to knowing if a word comes from God. Jeremiah goes away to pray, to contemplate, to listen for God. I think there is wise instruction here for us in terms of how we evaluate the words, the prophecies, the promises that come to us from all angles. Will we step aside before rushing to judgment, to listen for God’s word, to look for God’s way, to center ourselves in the One whom we live and move and have our being?

The story concludes with a word from God, reiterating the desire for Nebuchadnezzar to rule and showing Hananiah’s prophecy to be false. There is no place for proclaiming peace where it is not possible. Hananiah may cry “peace” and the people and the leaders may break into thunderous applause but that will make it so.

Prophets of peace must also ensure they unveil the way of peace. It is a hard and challenging road and it may very well lead through destruction and exile. It seems Hananiah is proclaiming peace because it’s what people want to hear. It is reminiscent of a certain US president standing on the deck of a war ship proclaiming, “Mission accomplished,” or any public figure of any political persuasion referring to weapons and armies as instruments of peace and war as a a peacekeeping mission.

In the end, the way to peace is through compassion, love and justice. Peace is born of right relationship. It requires that we forgo our enmities and lay our weapons down. In the Choral Project concerts this week, we are singing Erik Johns’s words for Aaron Copeland’s great chorus from his opera, The Tender Land. The words say this, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor. The promise of growing with faith and with knowing is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.” The promise of peace is always and only in right relationship, with God and neighbor – next door, nationally and globally.

As Oscar Romero writes in today’s words of preparation, “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.   It is right and duty.” Or as peace activist, John Dear, proclaims, “Being part of a community of peace is what it means to be human.” Shall we then embrace our humanity in communities of peace?

Jeremiah longed for peace but he also knew it would not come just because Hananiah said so. True prophets of peace act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Let’s give the last word to Jeremiah, a true prophet of peace, who, in the end, viewed God’s future eventually unfolding full of hope and promise. “Thus says the Lord…I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built…Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (From Jeremiah 31).

Summer Time…

Three candlesIt’s summer time and the living is easy, well maybe for some anyway. The rest of us keep plugging along. This week is especially busy for those of us who sang in The Choral Project – Dan Cudworth, Afan Huang and myself – as we prepare for our last concert series of the season. Pardon the shameless promotion but if you want to hear an exceptional choral concert of music you will love, I encourage to show up for one of these concerts. The music includes hymns, songs, and folk tunes from the Americas –USA, Canada and Latin America. Friday night will be in our sanctuary. Veterans, children and youth are eligible for free admission.

Saturday morning we will have the first meeting of our Assistant Pastor Search Committee. As I mentioned last week, Dan Cudworth, Don Ha, Melanie Ramirez and Hugh Satterlee have agreed to serve with Carolyn Shepard and me on this committee. We will look over job descriptions and lay out a process on Saturday. If you have input, please feel free to give it to any committee member and please hold us in your prayers.

Sunday we will spend more time with the prophet, Jeremiah. In this week’s text, we find Jeremiah in a battle with the court prophet, Hananiah, over true and false prophecy. Is it right to promise peace when it really is not on the horizon, nor have the people done those things that make for peace? What does it mean to be a true prophet of peace? After worship, we will enjoy the summer’s first patio hour, hosted by Marilyn Hunwick and Carolyn Shepard.

See you Sunday at 10 AM for Worship, Sunday School and fellowship on the patio.

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.

Pastor Rick