Peace to the Nations (July 6, 2014)

sermonsPEACE TO THE NATIONS

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Text: Zechariah 9:9-12 (NLT)

 

Who can tell me the story of the Pilgrims in a sound bite?

Well, one of my favorite bloggers cites a sermon in which the preacher tells a revisionist tale about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Nancy Taylor, in her inaugural sermon as pastor of Boston’s historic Old South Church, the church whose congregants gave us the original tea party, proclaimed the following:

As you know, the Pilgrims…were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.

I suspect that most of us did not read that account in high school history books. I imagine those in authority in the Boise Public School District would have avoided this tacit approval of drinking beer as unsuitable for young folk. After all, we had enough temptation to resist without an intoxicating account of the beginning of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Joking aside, it does raise questions about what is urgent in our lives and the life of this nation, the USA. It is always challenging to find the right balance for preaching on one of our non-religious, but sacrosanct holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or the 4th of July. Joanne Jones and I had more than one discussion about the place of patriotic music in worship. For me it has no place in the worship of God. I pledged to myself long ago that I would not serve a congregation that kept a US flag in the sanctuary. I learned at my father’s knee the importance of separation of church and state.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I do not value this country and appreciate many of the nobler principles on which it was founded. But I also recognize that there are flaws in the system and much wrong that has been done under patriotic banners. In the Midweek Message, I asked us to consider the words of the great preacher, William Sloane Coffin, who declared that “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones,’ he says, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

The key word here is love. Sometimes love is blind and that can lead to a morass of trouble when the beloved is blindly affirmed in all she is and does. Sometimes love is absent and the critique is harsh, mean-spirited and hardly helpful. To love someone or something truly is to open one’s eyes to see the possibilities and limitations; then to speak truth grounded in that love. You are so beautiful; so full of possibility; so rich in resource, yet there are times and places where you are not living up to your promise; you are not fulfilling your potentiality; you are not sharing that with which you have been blessed.

This week on Facebook my uncle in Texas accused me of being part of the “illegal immigrant problem.” I’ll let you be the judge. My friend Harold Sutherland has worked for many years as an asylum officer with the Department of Homeland Security. Harold is a graduate of the American Baptist Seminary of the West and an ordained American Baptist minister. Some of you may remember that for a number of years before he went to work for the government, Harold did refugee resettlement with the American Baptist Churches of the West and the ABC-USA. Harold has a big, compassionate heart. I can only imagine how difficult it has been to do the work he has chosen. It is hard enough to try to resettle refugees. To work as an asylum officer must be excruciatingly painful at times.

Anyway, on Independence Day, Harold posted, with a photo of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’s great poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved in the statue’s base. He added this comment: “As the latest immigration debate rages, I want to share this. This has been a powerful symbol of our nation’s history and welcome. I fear that so many angry people here today want nothing to do with the sentiment of Emma Lazarus’s poem and I wonder what we will do, what can be done, and where will we go with this crisis.”

You remember the poem? I learned the last few lines in grade school.

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

When I reposted Harold’s post, I added these words. “The sentiment of this poem still moves me, especially as I view the ugly, angry mob in Murietta, CA.” When I saw that mob on the news, blocking the buses carrying children and families from what appear to be obscenely inadequate quarters on the Texas border to other detention centers where they will be processed, then most likely returned to their country of origin, I found it difficult to be proud of my country and at least some of its people. These protestors looked like ugly Americans to me and my heart fell. Where is our compassion? Where is the beacon-hand that glows world-wide welcome, the lamp that leads to safety, the golden door of opportunity that has opened at one time or another to the families of every person screaming hate and turning back those desperate children?

My uncle insists that his Italian ancestors came here legally, so that legitimates his right to be here. That may be so. I know the issues of legality are more complex than I can sort out. But what are we to say to Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, still lifting her lamp beside the golden door? What are we to say the God who made us all and loves us with the same ineffable love? What are we to say to Christ who stands at this table of communion and bids you and me and the all the world to eat and drink? How will we respond to that Spirit of compassion that blows around us, in us and through us when facing our neighbors in need?

Coffin, again, writes that “Individuals and nations are at their worst when, persuaded of their superior virtue, they crusade against the vices of others. They are at their best when they claim their God-given kinship with all humanity, offering prayers of thanks that there is more mercy in God than sin in us.” In the end, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I must confess that my first allegiance is to the God who made us and all creation, who through Christ is drawing all of creation back to God’s self.

Zechariah, an obscure, minor prophet, lived and worked in a challenging time for his people. After 100 years of exile in Babylon, they had been allowed to return home. In some ways Zechariah was an optimist or at least he was hopeful. He tried to encourage his people by exhorting them to rebuild the temple. Zechariah came from a family of priestly privilege but apparently he had a heart of compassion for the people struggling around him to rebuild their decimated city and reclaim their lost legacy.

His belief was that, in the work of rebuilding the temple, people would not only find meaningful employment but also that deep, covenantal relationship to God. The temple itself was secondary to that relationship to the one liberates and redeems, blesses and loves with a steadfast love. Eventually, Zechariah saw his people fail to live up to his dream, indeed, to their own national vision and the promise of the future. But in the moment he penned today’s text, he was full of hope for the promise of a renewed covenant. This was urgent for him, for his people, his nation.

For his people as for the people of Jesus’ time, the messianic vision became distorted toward a ruler who would come with armed might to drive oppressive enemies away and secure the boundaries and resources of the land for the insiders. But Zechariah says, and Jesus repeats the word, this is not how God works. Look, this king you so desire is coming to you. Shout! Rejoice! But also, beware. This sovereign one is not just powerful, he’s righteous and he’s humble. His power is not in armament or weapons. His power is love and compassion. His mission is to bring peace to the nations. Not what they expected. Not what they wanted to hear.

The risk of all self-righteous patriotism is uncritical love and loveless criticism. It creates boundaries among people that God never intended and refuses to recognize. It creates categories, defining who is in and who is out, categories at which God takes offense and rejects. God simply and eternally continues to widen the circle. There is room at God’s table for all and there is an abundant feast to fill the body, mind and soul of whomsoever will come. So where people take up the sword or the hateful placard against a neighbor, sister, brother, ill-defined as enemy, there is God turning swords to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. Wherever there are children of God longing for safety, for food, for shelter, for freedom, for love, for home, there is the daughter of Zion rejoicing with all her heart, there is Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, lifting her beacon hand of world-wide welcome beside God’s golden door, there is the king of righteousness and humility repaying two blessings for each trouble and bringing everlasting peace to the nations. May it be so.

Amen.

 

Accounting for Hope (May 25, 2014)

sermonsACCOUNTING FOR HOPE

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Texts: 1 Peter 3:13-22

 

Somewhere along the way I got on the email list for the Children’s Defense Fund. Undoubtedly, I signed an online petition which gave them my email address. I will confess that I do not always read the long, thoughtful postings by the founder, Marian Wright Edelman, but when I do, I am rarely disappointed. Edelman is a remarkable woman of insight, passion, wisdom and courage. Maybe it was synchronicity or maybe the Spirit, but this week’s posting was titled, “From Hardship to Hope.” Given the sermon title, I had to read it didn’t I?

I’m not going to quote the whole piece, but I want to highlight some of what Edelman has to say. I made of a few copies for those of you who would like to read the entire reflection. The focus of this piece is foster children. Edelman writes, “Foster care is intended to be a temporary solution during one of the darkest times of a child’s life, but the average length of stay is nearly two years, and every year more than 23,000 youths ‘age out’ of foster care at age 18 or older without being connected to a forever family. These vulnerable young people are at huge risk of dropping out of high school and ending up unemployed, homeless, or in the criminal justice system.” In her column, she highlights three remarkable young people who have made their way through the system to success and a passion for helping others in that same system.

The first is Amy Peters, a 24 year old law student at the University of Nebraska. Amy entered the foster care system at age 12 and remained until she “aged out” at 19. Amy says, “Foster care is no fun for anyone,” but, because she excelled in high school and was accepted to the University of Nebraska, she was eligible for a state program that provided housing, health care and financial assistance until she was 21. Edelman writes that “Amy knows very well she was one of the lucky ones.”

Sixto Cancel was taken into the system at 11 months after his drug-addicted mother proved unable to care for him. He had been subjected to poverty, neglect and abuse. He was briefly adopted at age 9 by a woman who eventually abandoned him. Somehow Sixto found a remedial education program that inspired him and today he is a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University. Edelman reports that “He’s not complaining when he says that unlike most of his peers he has no parental safety net to fall back on when the going gets tough.”

Though she only spent 4 months in Idaho’s foster care system, Ashley Kuber grew up in a poverty-stricken family. She went to work at an early age to buy clothes and help her family with the rent. I’m sure each of these stories is reminiscent of tales told by thousands of young people in foster care. What is remarkable about these three, though, and why Edelman highlights them is that they all have become active advocates for foster children, working at the state and national level to improve the lot of others still in the system. They did not let the system destroy them and now they are dedicated to improving the lot of others.

In each situation, the story is inspired and informed by hope held and hope fulfilled. Edelman concludes her column with these words, “A common thread among many of these young child welfare leaders is that they found the courage to speak up after being encouraged by an adult and told that they—and their story—were important. By simply opening up your heart, looking a young person in the eye, and speaking an encouraging word you might change the trajectory of that child’s life and give them hope for a brighter future” (Marian Wright Edelman, “From Hardship to Hope,” childrensdefensefund.org).

This is an example of accounting for hope, of sharing those experiences in which hope is held and realized. It seems to me that this is also what the writer of First Peter is asking of us, that we recognize our hope as people of God and followers of Christ; then live into that hope. Of course, the challenge of living with hope was greater for those who first received this letter. They lived with threat of humiliation and persecution for the hope they held. As people of privilege, living in a land in which Christianity is part of the dominant culture, hope may seem less significant.

We talked a little about this in Bible study on Tuesday. We, in the church talk a lot more about faith and love than we do hope. James Boyce writes that “Every reader of the New Testament is familiar with Paul’s triad of faith, hope, and love, and his remark that the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13). But for the audience of this letter, the more important of these gifts is hope; hope is at risk for those who have difficulty keeping hope alive in the midst of their troubled lives (James Boyce, “Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22, May 25, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).

What do we know of hope, how do we hold it, when do we account for it? Hope – “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen; a feeling of trust; to want something to happen or be the case; to want something to be true and think that it could happen; the state which promotes the desire of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or in the world at large” (Google search for “hope”). What do you think? What insight, understanding, story comes to mind when you hear hope? Would anyone be willing to share?

It’s hard to hope when times are tough. That is part of what is remarkable about Edelman’s witness and Peter’s admonition. When the shadows overwhelm and the way through seems impossible, when the despair descends and the future fades, how does one hold hope and keep on keeping on? We sang the old hymn this morning, “All my hope on God is founded” and we will end the service singing, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.” This is the hope for which we are called to account. We claim to believe in a God who holds the future and to follow a Christ who, in compassion, leads the way into that future. We exist in hope that there is more to life and living than we have known and that we will eventually find our way to “God…who seeks to claim [our] heart[s] as home.”

What would it take for us, you and me, to “make…an accounting for the hope that is in you”? For many, hope is a fragile thing. To share one’s hope is an exercise in vulnerability. You can hear the voices. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know that’s never going to happen.” “Come on. Get real.” “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.” “Science has shown…” “Tradition teaches…” “You’ll never be anything but…” “Give up.” “It’s just foolish to hope for anything more, anything different, anything better.”

Except, remember a couple of weeks ago when Doug shared with us just the power of such foolishness? Perhaps there is more power in hope than we know. In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffin claims, “It’s hope that helps us keep the faith, despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.” There is such wisdom here. It is in holding hope that we begin to believe that things can be different – different now, not just in some sweet bye and bye. And it is in accounting for hope that we begin to make a difference in this world.

The great black, lesbian poet and essayist, Audre Lorde, facing breast cancer, wrote, “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence…”

So, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us” (Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in Sister Outsider). Hope unaccounted for, unnamed, unspoken will die a certain, strangled death. We hold our hope. We name our hope. We work, in gentleness, reverence and with clear conscience to make our hope real.

This is the legacy of those early Christians who held their hope through thick and thin, who accounted for it at personal peril, who lived it until it became reality for them. This is the testimony of Amy and Sixto and Ashley who are out to change the world, borne on wings of hope. This is the life work of Marian Wright Edelman, William Sloane Coffin, Vincent Harding, who died last week, and a whole host of those whose accounting for hope has been in the knowledge “that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.”

I know I am looking to others to help me today. Maybe I have my own struggles growing into the hope I have for myself and for us as people of God, body of Christ, fruit of the Spirit. But given that this week was the anniversary of the birth of Harvey Milk and a postage stamp was issued in his honor, I can’t help but conclude with his best known quote. “I ask this…If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out. If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door…And that’s all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power…it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you…You gotta give em’ hope…you gotta give em’ hope”

(Quoted in Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,, p. 275).

Amen.

More Love (February 9, 2014)

CarnivalMORE LOVE
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 9, 2014

Text: Isaiah 58; 1 Corinthians 13

When I was a senior in high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical. That year we performed, “Carnival,” that small but delightful show that follows the lives of an eccentric group of performers and workers in a run-down traveling circus known as “The Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris.” Paul is a former ballet dancer, now crippled and reduced to running the puppet show for the circus. He speaks his words of ironic humor, cynicism and bitterness through his hand puppets, Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Marguerite and Reynardo, the Fox. The female lead is a simple, orphan girl who wanders into the carnival looking for work. One male character after another seeks to seduce the naïve young woman until she finally falls victim to Paul’s angry rejection and bitter cruelty. Of course, the truth is that Paul is falling in love with her, a love that is eventually acknowledged and they all live happily ever after in best of Broadway fashion. The moral of the musical is the redemptive power of love. The show opens and closes with the charming little song, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Do you remember it?

Love makes the world go ‘round, love makes the world go ‘round
Somebody soon will live you, if no one loves you now.
High in some silent sky loves sings a silver song
Making the world whirl softly
Love makes the world go ‘round.

Now you can argue that this is a rather sentimental view of love. It is, after all, an American musical, based on a gentle French tale in which the basic plot line is “love conquers all.” And if today’s scripture texts are any indication, the song offers an insufficient word about love. Yet, who can ever speak with final authority on the subject. Love is as broad and deep as human knowing. There is more love than we will ever know. Ultimately, loves flows from God and back to God, carrying us along on its mighty stream. Though the song is simple, the sentiment can be profound. What if it is indeed true that love makes the world go ‘round? Would we not want to immerse ourselves in such love and let it bear us to our ultimate destination in the very heart of God?

In the musical, Paul is angry and bitter, seething at what has been unfairly taken from him. Ironically he is self-absorbed with his self-hatred. The innocent Lili holds up a mirror of affectionate delight in the world all around that draws him out of his shell and transforms his life. What she shows him is more love than he can show himself, in fact, more love than he has ever known – love and delight in his being, not at all unlike the love and delight that God holds for us, indeed for all creation.

The people who had returned from exile to the sad ruins of Jerusalem were not so unlike Paul, the puppeteer. All they could see was what they had lost. Perhaps they too were bitter and cynical. We know that they held a narrow, inward-looking view of their life as a people. They were pretty self-absorbed in religious practice that they believed would save them. The trouble was it wasn’t working. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They cry out to God, whose absence they are feeling all too keenly. “Oh Lord, nobody loves us now!”

Isaiah, speaking for God, is neither naïve nor gentle in his response. “It’s time to wake up folks. Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” My guess is that most of us are not too big on fasting as a religious practice, so maybe you can name for yourself a practice that gets in the way of following faithfully God’s will for your life. Marvin McMickle, former pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland and now president of Colgate Rochester Divinity School suggests that “There are many people for whom piety is the be-all and end-all of true religion. They keep an accurate count of the hours they spend in church, in choir rehearsal, in a board meeting, in private prayer, in Bible study, and in attendance at various other church events. That involvement in church life seems to them to be a sufficient investment in a relationship with God.”

But our practices of piety are not sufficient. We can always use more light and more love. In fact, the prophets proclaim that God gets tired of rote religious practice and turns away from rituals ungrounded in love. Last week’s lectionary readings included these words from Micah, “’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”(Micah 6:6-8).

And Amos thunders, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). The point is, we think we can come to God with our familiar religious practices and that will be sufficient to sustain God’s favor. Fasting, sacrifice, celebrations, solemn assemblies, even our songs, our worship, are not enough in themselves to link us to God.

William Sloane Coffin tells us in our Words of Preparation that “’God is love,’ as Scripture says, and that means the revelation is in relationship. ‘God is love’ means God is known devotionally, not dogmatically. ‘God is love’ does not clear up old mysteries; it discloses new mystery. ‘God is love’ is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender. Faith is being grasped by the power of love.” This, in fact, is the love that makes the world go ‘round and it is not sentimental at all.

It seemed wrong to talk about more love and not at least remind ourselves of the Apostle Paul’s great hymn to love in his first letter to the church at Corinth. As with the Beatitudes from last week I am not going to try to unpack this familiar text this morning. Suffice it to say that these words are not the sentimental litany we make of them at weddings and other celebrations. As one scholar suggests, here we find love as a verb, love in action, love redeeming lives and transforming the world. Here we find that love is more than we may ever wrap our minds around. If Coffin is right, it “is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender.”

At the same time hear this, in that surrender we may be drawn into a powerful stream of justice and righteousness, of compassion and care, of mercy and steadfast love, for so it is with God. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Paul all tell us that reaching for more love will have consequences for how we live our lives, how we relate to one another and all of God’s creation. Love asks, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”; “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…”; to “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”; to be patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, to not insist on [our] own way, or be irritable or resentful, rejoicing not in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things – this is the love that makes the world go ‘round. When we ask for more love, this is what we are asking for. And when God calls us into relationship this is what God desires of us.

As I said last week, I believe there are more light-filled days ahead for our congregation if that is our desire and if we are willing to risk walking into God’s light. In the same way, I believe that God has more love for us, more than we can ever receive or hold, if we are willing to surrender ourselves to that everflowing stream. This is the “new mystery” that “’God is love’…discloses.” Will we give ourselves to the mystery? Will we surrender to this truth even though we may never master it? Can we trust that love really does make the world go ‘round? And will we then allow God to ask more love of us? In our living, in our dying, and in our renewal, more love, O God, more love.

Amen.