Now What? (4/16/17)

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Text:  Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

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

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

Prairie Burning And New Life

Molly MarshallMolly Marshall
President of Central Baptist Seminary, Kansas City, Kansas

On a recent road trip through southern Kansas, I witnessed a spring rite, the burning of the prairie. The billowing smoke and red glow of distant fires are quite the vista — and a sign of renewal. The distinctive smell permeates the environs, even in a speeding presidential Ford with windows tightly closed. Lightning strikes have lit up dead trees and overgrown pastures for centuries. Seeing the benefits, farmers and ranchers now set controlled times of burning so that new life may come.

It is hard to believe that from charred grasslands and withered, blackened brush can come a healthy ecosystem. Yet, that is exactly what happens. The prairie always blossoms with new vibrancy after this time of seeming ruin.

Continue reading at Baptist News Global…

Pastor Gregory Says… (4/6/16)

Pastor Greg with childrenLast week began our journey into Earth Month. I was excited to share with you the quirky things running through my mind this Easter season and how I feel God calling us to be a Resurrection people in a Good Friday world…gardening with God the paradise of delight here in Palo Alto! This week I’d like to highlight Wednesday night’s film screening, “Journey of the Universe.” Written by Brian Swimme and Yale University historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker, they have drawn together scientific discoveries in astronomy, geology, biology, ecology, and biodiversity with spiritual insights concerning the nature of the universe. From the Big Bang to the impact humans have on creation today, this film is designed to inspire a new and closer relationship with Earth in a period of growing environmental and social concern. I look forward to see you in the Youth Room at 7 pm. We will have the big screen and buttery popcorn!

Pastor Gregory Says… (3/30/16)

Gregory StevensThrough the sniffles and the sneezing, the coughing and the scratchy eyes…I am still shouting: Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen indeed!! Easter morning was rough for my allergies. I was hot in my suit and the flowers had my allergies off the charts but there was no other place I would rather have been. As I told all of you on Sunday my biological parents, David and Carol, don’t do much family-ing because of my queer sexuality. That is painful. But that is also Friday’s news. Sunday has come, Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen, indeed! That’s the news I heard in your words of love and acceptance after service, it’s what I felt in your wrap-around hugs and forehead kisses, it’s what I tasted in your home-cooked finger foods, it’s what I see when you stay and work to help clean the church up for hours on end, and it’s what I understood to be your commitment in always showing up. Resurrection is the Spirit of this church! When it is the rambunctious, resurrecting spirit of Christ that brings us together we are not bound by the barriers of old but can spring forward into new and creative possibilities. I am reminded of where Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

SAY WHAAAT?

easter_cross.fwA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon, First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, April 5, 2015

Text: Luke 24:1-12 (The Message)

“Say whaat? You went to the tomb the first thing this morning and it was empty? Are you kidding us? The grave clothes were folded neatly on the ledge and you were met by a couple of angels who told you he was raised up? You girls must have gotten into the wine left over from last night’s supper! And so early in the morning! Shameful! This is just plain crazy talk!”

You get the point. The women returned from the burial site and were met with scorn and disbelief when they tried to share what they had seen and heard. I’m sure this was not the first or last time that witnesses were or will be disbelieved, laughed at, written off. We know from many crime dramas that eye witnesses can’t always be trusted and what these women were reporting was second hand. They hadn’t actually seen a risen Jesus, had they?

We’ve heard Luke’s account of the empty tomb before, perhaps many times over many years, but I have to say that this year I was struck particularly by the treatment of the women. Yes, I had noted it before, but this time it really stood out for me, “…the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.”

Sadly, a major reason for the disbelief was that the story came from women. David Lose observes, “Luke says that those who received the testimony of the women regarded their message as an ‘idle tale.’ [But] that’s actually a fairly generous translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word ‘delirious.’ So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense” (David Lose, “If It’s Not Hard to Believe, You’re Probably Not Paying Attention!” March 24, 2013, workingpreacher.org).

In his commentary on Luke, Richard Vinson writes, “It is well documented that many 1st-century men thought that women were not as reliable as men as witnesses, being more emotional.” He quotes Joesphus who wrote, “…let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…” He then quotes Philo who “also thought women were naturally inclined to be deceitful; writing ‘…woman is a selfish creature and one addicted to jealousy in an immoderate degree, and terribly calculated to agitate and overturn the natural inclinations of a man, and to mislead him by her continual tricks…’” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 743).

Luke, who often goes out of his way to lift up women in his gospel, seems to be underscoring here one of the great transformations needed if the gospel is to be realized. There is a significant place for women in the Beloved Community of God, but the Apostles still have much to learn. Vinson continues, “Luke has told the reader early on that these women were part of the group from the beginning, and that their ministry and their providing of their means kept things going. Why, then,” he wonders, “do the guys ignore them? They heard the same predictions the women did; Peter, James, and John knew that two heavenly messengers appeared with Jesus before [Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration], and so the testimony of the women should have been credible.” Besides that, “They know these women; James and John are doubting the word of their sainted mother, for crying out loud…they are not thinking straight when they dismiss the testimony of their wives, mothers, sisters, and companions in the faith as ‘foolish chatter’” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 743).

You get the point. We’ve come a long way but we still have a lot to learn in this area. Still, I imagine the Apostles’ disbelief was not to be blamed totally on the fact that it was women who first shared it. The text says goes on to say that Peter became curious enough to check things out for himself.  However, he shows up too late. The tomb is still empty, the grave clothes are there but the angels have moved on. He is left in a state of wonder. He walks “away puzzled, shaking his head.” Puzzled, but still without a word of belief in the tale the women had told.

We have heard this story over and over centuries. It has become a part of our lore, familiar to us and largely unquestioned. We celebrate the event annually with color and flowers, with music and joy. We retrieve our “alleluias” and shout “He is risen!” But there were no alleluias on that first Easter morning. No one shouting, “He is risen!” No one responding, “He is risen indeed!” Put yourself in their shoes. Take a minute to try to imagine what it must have been like that first Easter morning.

Imagine the women. Luke implies that a whole group of them showed up – maybe all the women who gather for our monthly women’s brunch. They had come to do their duty and a sad duty it was. They hadn’t been able to prepare properly the body for burial as the sun set on the Sabbath. They had gotten up early to finish the painful task. There probably wasn’t a lot of chatter, idle or otherwise. as they made their way in the dim morning half-light to the tomb.

Imagine the shock of finding the stone rolled away, the body absent, the grave clothes neatly folded. Imagine yourself in the presence of angels, those holy spectral figures bathed in dazzling light. Hear their chiding challenge, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Caught off guard, what would your response have been? Mark’s gospel records that they fled in fear, but Luke has them flying back to the city, to the place where the rest of the group was hiding, their feet barely touching the ground. Their sad silence was broken. They couldn’t wait to tell everyone what they had seen and heard. How about you? Does the good news ever capture you in such a way that you can’t keep quiet?

And then imagine bursting into that room where the others were gathered – some quietly crying, some pondering the next step, some still in troubled sleep – the room dark, grim and despairing. “Wait! Wait a minute. Listen everybody. We were just at the tomb and, you’re not going to believe this, but the body was gone! The tomb was empty!” Nobody was prepared for this. No one had time for it. It was easier to dismiss these women as delirious in their grief, right? Can you see how difficult belief would have been in that sorrowing environment?

From the vantage point of two millennia of Christian tradition, we can say, “Surely they should have seen what was coming. Jesus had been talking about it for months. Why were they so slow to hear it, to get it?” Reflecting on these questions, Craig Koester, writes that “Unbelief does not mean that people believe nothing. Rather, it means that they believe something else. People say ‘I don’t believe it’ because there is something else that they believe more strongly” (Craig R. Koester, “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12,” April 4, 2010, workingpreacher.org).

They had hoped for a messiah who would drive out the Romans, put the collaborators and religious leaders in their place, re-distribute the land and relieve them of all their sickness, oppression and poverty. Jesus not only failed to meet their expectations, he got himself killed, and without even putting up a fight. You can imagine they were all pretty much down, devastated, hopeless. How could they wrap their minds around the women’s story? How does any of us wrap our minds around such a story?

Koester concludes, “…here is where the Easter message begins its work, by challenging our certainties (Koester, op. cit.). It challenges our certainties much as it must have challenged theirs. In the reminder of the angels, in the subsequent appearances of Jesus, they had their memories jogged as happened first to the women at the tomb: “Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Or as with Cleopas and companion on the Emmaus Road:  “’Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). Their response:  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

Is this not true resurrection, when the Word of God comes alive in us – jogging memory, enlivening consciousness, flaming in our hearts? Above all, Jesus came with an urgent message about the in-breaking of God’s Beloved Community. It was a community different than any they had known or imagined. It was not the Pax Romana founded on imperial power and military might. It was not the obsessive ritualization of religious practice forced on them by some of their religious leaders. It was not the grinding poverty of their daily existence. It was not even an “us overcoming them” way of life.

In a great article from this week’s Boston Globe, Brandon Ambrosino has this to say about the real significance of the story those women brought from the empty tomb that first Easter morning. He writes, “What’s radical about Easter…is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. ”  He sees that “Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do queer lives and the lives of undocumented aliens within our borders — ‘Remember the stranger in your midst’ is a common refrain in this kingdom” (Brandon Ambrosino, “Jesus’ Radical Politics,” April 1, 2015, bostonglobe.com).

How does this ring for you this Easter morning? Would you rather keep the story enshrouded in ancient myth and mystery, lovely lore that rarely challenges  or would you be willing to accept a more radical resurrection with a here and now flavor? If you choose the latter, part of the task for twenty-first century disciples is to remember the deep meaning of the first Easter for those first followers, how it changed their lives forever. Then, it is to let the Christ consciousness fill your mind, the flame of the Spirit kindle fire in your heart and the Beloved Community of God to become real in the living of your life. Compassion and hospitality, justice and equity, peace and love are to become our way of life as we let the Lord of Life rise and live in us. We become Easter people in the way those first disciples did and the world is never the same again. He is risen! Is he risen in you and me? Let us make it so. Alleluia. Amen.

Not in This Tomb (4/20/2014)

sermonsNOT IN THIS TOMB

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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Texts: Matthew 28:1-10; John 18:1-18 (The Message)

Have you ever lost anything valuable, something precious, irreplaceable?   It probably doesn’t take a big prompt to bring back that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, that mixture of fear, anger and sadness. Maybe it was a valuable watch or piece of jewelry. Maybe it was a card sent by your mother or a note from your father or picture of you with your sisters and brothers. Maybe it was a family heirloom passed down from your great, great grandparents who had brought it with them from the old country. Maybe it was job to which you were dedicated. Maybe it was a partner or spouse who chose to move on. Maybe the loss came through the death of a pet or a friend or a loved one.

Loss makes me think of those great parables from the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. In the first two cases the shepherd and the woman searched and searched until they found what was lost and in each case there was joy and celebration. The father did not search for his lost son. Instead, he waited patiently, hopefully, expectantly until his boy came to his senses and returned on his own. Again there was rejoicing and celebration.

Maybe you’ve had experiences like this in which the lost is found with much joy and celebration. I saw on the evening news this week two people who had lost legs in the Boston Marathon bombing.   With smiles on their faces, to the cheers of the accompanying crowd, they were crossing the finish line, having covered the entire Marathon route on prosthetic legs. There are many ways in which what was lost may be recovered.

Especially from the human perspective, today’s ancient words tell the tale of something lost and something found. But this tale operates on a plane hitherto unknown in human history. We heard two accounts of the same Resurrection story today, and there are two others we didn’t consider. Each gospel writer tells the tale from a different perspective. Each has different characters and different encounters. Each has its own set of circumstances. It is pointless to try to reconcile all the details. There was no reporter with a video camera to provide an eye witness report for the 11 o’clock news. And, as we know from numerous crime dramas, eye witness accounts are notoriously unreliable. In the midst of the excitement and trauma, was the Fed Ex truck on fire or not?

In spite of the immortal words of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday, “The facts, ma’am. Just the facts” – words which, by the way, were never actually uttered on the old radio/tv crime drama, we know facts are elusive. So, in the way of the wise Native American elder, I will say, “I don’t know if it actually happened this way, but I know the story is true.” There is wisdom and truth that supersedes factuality. In some cases that wisdom and truth is life-giving.

One key aspect, perhaps the key aspect, that all four versions of the Easter story hold in common is the empty tomb. Not in this tomb was the body of Jesus to be found. So say Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The religious authorities may have convinced the Roman Governor to seal the tomb with a large stone and post an armed guard, but every account reports that early on the Easter morning the tomb was empty, no body to be found. There are reports of encounters with one – or was it two? – figures in dazzling white. There is the familiar angelic admonition not to be afraid and instructions to tell the disciples either to return to Galilee or stay in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. But they all agree, the tomb itself was empty, the stone rolled away and grave clothes left lying.

Another key aspect in all four accounts is that the first responders were women – whether it was to prepare properly the body, hastily buried at the Sabbath’s too-rapid approach on Friday or to keep vigil or to weep and mourn, it was women from Jesus’ followers who showed up very early in the morning the first day of the week, the Sabbath now behind them. It is not so surprising to find them first at the tomb on Sunday, they were also the last at the cross on Friday evening. Perhaps the women had less reason to fear the authorities than the men and so were freer to be seen in public mourning the loss of their teacher and friend. Or perhaps the women had less reason to hide in shame at abandoning Jesus when he needed them most. Whatever the reasons, they were the first to witness the reality – not in this tomb was the Christ to be found, not on this morning. As the angel reminds them, he has risen as he said he would.

Now I don’t know about you, but I imagine that word was baffling. As I remind us from time to time, we have had 2000 years to process these stories. They are central to our faith tradition. They have become engrained in us. But can you imagine what it must have been like for those women – whether it was several or just Mary Magdalene – to find an empty tomb and hear those words, “He is not here. He was raised, just as he said”? There must have been confusion, along with fear, doubt, and wonderment at what might have happened to the body. What did it all mean? The earliest gospel by Mark, in its oldest version, has the women keeping the information to themselves for fear of the consequences of telling such a tale in the very volatile public forum that Jerusalem must have been at that time.

John, the great story teller, gives us a very intimate account of that morning. Mary, alone at the tomb, discovers it empty. Peter and the beloved disciple run in and out of the scene and once more Mary is alone. Remember we started today trying to recall some of what we might feel when we have lost something valuable, precious, irreplaceable? What for Mary Magdalene could have been a more crushing loss than Jesus, her teacher and friend. Some scholars speculate that there was no more significant and committed follower of Jesus than this woman. This loss was catastrophic for her.

John seems to have a special understanding of the deep grief we feel when we have lost someone we love. Remember Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus? Whatever mighty act of God he was about to perform, he was overcome by his own deep feelings of grief at the loss of his friend. Now Mary Magdalene stands at the tomb and weeps. Pain, fear, confusion – “They took my Master…and I don’t know where they put him.” “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

How does she expect to care for one now three days dead? What does she want with the body? Who can read her mind now or then? She needed to mourn. She needed to weep. She needed to remember all Jesus had meant to her. Even at a stone-cold tomb there was something of him that might reach out to her and keep his memory alive. Now they had taken even this bit of consolation. It was hard to see through her tears in the murky mist of morning’s first pale light. “Mister, help me here. He’s not in this tomb. Do you know where I can find him?”

Oh yes, Mary. You are so right. Not in this tomb will you find him – or any other tomb for that matter. Yes, I know where you can find him. He’s right here with you, just as he promised. Open your swollen eyes, open your numbed mind, open your grieving heart. Here he is standing before you, calling you by name. “Mary.” Ah, can it be so? But no one else has ever spoken her name quite like that. No one has ever called her with such tenderness, love and compassion. Can it be? It must be. “Teacher,” and the reunion is complete. What was thought to be lost is found again.   What had been so painfully torn from her is restored. Her grief is lifted and her heart is healed in the presence of the living Christ.

I can’t explain it all to you. I don’t even know for sure if it happened just this way, but I know the story is true. I love the words of our opening song today. Sometimes I find myself singing them at random, unexpected moments. “Lives again our glorious King. Where, O death is now your sting? Where your victory boasting grave?” Not in this tomb. Not in any tomb. “Death cannot keep its prey.” God is a God of life and the living. Yes, there is this mystery called death with which we all must deal, but for God death is part of life. In Christ, all our fears, even the power of death itself are overcome. Do not be afraid, for life will ever triumph over death. Wesley’s hymn proclaims the ultimate truth of the Resurrection, “Love’s redeeming work is done; fought the fight, the battle one. Death in vain forbids him rise. Christ has opened paradise” – for you and me and all the world.

Mary, Rick, Jane, Alan, Kathy, Lynn, Sarah, Daniel – turn to your neighbor, take them by the hand and call them by name. Feel the redemptive power? Jesus calls us one by one into beloved community, that beloved community that lives at the center of the reign of God. In that community, in that reign, death holds no power. In that community of those called by name, in that reign of loving compassion for all creation, there is only room for life – abundant and eternal life. No hunger, no poverty, no apathy, no bullying, no hatred, no war, no enemies, no fear, no ignorance, no tombs of any kind and death itself shall be no more. If you can hear Christ calling your name this morning, calling from beyond the grave, calling from the very heart of God, then join together to bring that abundant and eternal life to all creation. I can’t tell you exactly how it is so, but I know it is true – Christ lives and because Christ lives, we, too, shall live. Christ is risen. Alleluia. Amen

Raising Lazarus

Raising of LazarusIn Adult Spiritual Formation this Sunday we will continue our consideration of hunger as a Lenten concern. If you have had experiences of dealing with hunger and the hungry over the past few weeks, please be ready to share those. We will also consider some common “experiment” around hunger (a la Mark Scandrette) in which we might engage as a congregation.

Once more in worship we will be instructed by one of those wonderful stories from the gospel of John. This week it’s the raising of Lazarus in which we encounter the deep and abiding faith of Martha and Mary. Here Jesus affirms that he himself is the Resurrection and the Life and then breaks down and weeps in front of his dead friend’s burial place. Even with the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, the pain of death still touches the heart of a very human Jesus. This is the last and greatest of the “signs” recounted in John’s gospel. It becomes the tipping point for those religious authorities who fear Jesus’ threat to their power. It leads rather directly to Christ’s crucifixion. The end is in sight or is it?

See you Sunday at 10 AM for worship (with Communion) and Sunday School. Bring someone along to share the Lenten Journey with you and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation.

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

Pastor Rick