God and Country

This is the 5th sermon in our Pop Culture Series.
popculture4


I believe I should start today by saying that it’s easy to get this wrong. Preachers, and Christians, and people of all faiths have, for all time, often misrepresented either their faith or their nation in the interest of the other.

About God and country, it is easier to get things wrong then to get things right. So please pray with me that we get things more right than wrong. And that whether we get things right or wrong, that we do so motivated first and foremost buy our intent to follow Jesus no matter what.

<prayer>

I wanted to start this message with this: 8-10 seconds of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA“, but then thought better of it.  How would that go over?  Would I just be using that song to evoke a particular emotion or response?

What response would I want you to have if I played it?

Lee Iacocca tried to pay Springsteen for the rights to use it to represent Chrysler Corp.

Ronald Reagan didn’t ask for permission; he just used it. You get to do that if you are President.

I’m not sure either Iacocca or the Gipper ever actually listened to the song. Have you actually listened to “Born in the USA”?

I’ve told some of you that along my path as a Jesus-follower I was, for a time, a fundamentalist.  I do not use that label derogatorily at all: I described myself that way at the time.  That time included the period in my late teens when I burned all my rock and roll.

It was “devil music,” you see.  Or at least that’s what I came to believe at the hands of some pretty convincing preachers.

I owned some, so I burned it.  Why not just give it away?  What, and contribute to someone else’s delinquency?  Not a chance.

It’s been more than 35 years since I burned those albums.  I have, I’ll admit, re-aquired some of the music – of course, now it is in digital form.

One of the things that I gained from those experiences, though, was a strong desire to hear the words – to listen for the words of a song – and to understand the message.

Sometimes that isn’t easy with rock and roll, but I learned to do it.  It’s easier now, of course, with any search engine.

One of the arguments those pretty convincing preachers used against rock music was about the music itself. Some of them even referred to it as “African tribal rhythms” which were, of course, demonic.

I’m not sure you could get much more racist than that, but back then, I was just an impressionable teenager. I didn’t realize how racist we could be without even trying.

I think maybe we are learning how racist we can be without trying.  In fact, I believe that if we aren’t trying NOT to be racist, those of us in the majority, those of us with privilege, should learn to assume we are being racist at least some of the time. We ought also to befriend people who are different than we are.  I learned last fall during the uproar in Ferguson, that the average white american has one black friend.

Are you and I better than average?  We can be. We should be. We must be.

So, in 1984, when “Born in the USA” came out, I listened. To the music and the words.  The music makes it feel like it’s really upbeat, maybe even positively patriotic.

The words present a different message.

However, I don’t think this means it isn’t a patriotic song.  I think this means that Patriotism is probably best lived as something other than “MY country right or wrong.”

Countries are sometimes wrong.

This country, the US, was founded on such recognition!  The breakaway from the crown of Great Britain was, to a large degree, about freedom to be able to say what they feel needs to be said.

Sometimes today we forget this.  Sometimes it seems like of one questions the decisions of an elected leader one is said to hate the country.

My observations lead me to this conclusion: If your guy (or woman) is the person in elected office, opponents are un-American to question his or her actions.  If the person in elected office isn’t “your” person – is someone you didn’t vote for, you can not only question decisions, but motivations, personality, anything you want.

I don’t believe that kind of bickering and hateful arguing is patriotic. What’s more serious, I am pretty sure people who are trying to follow Jesus better every day don’t treat other human beings that way.

But I’m not here today to lecture or preach on how to be patriotic.  I’m here today to worship God and, particularly today, to offer some thoughts, hopefully inspired thoughts, about how we, as Christians in America, navigate being Americans and Christians in a world that is often mostly steered by Pop Culture.

First, we can and ought to give thanks that we live in a land where people are free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.  This is one of the earliest truths and longest held truths about the US.

On the other hand, in a land where one can freely worship literally anything one wants to worship, it is hard to keep people focused on what or who ought to be worshiped.

And this is a place that Pop Culture really challenges us.  Worship means “expressing, feeling, or showing that one values – holds worthy – the object of worship. Typically a deity.”

What do we worship?  Let me ask this differently: What do we value? To what do we attribute worth?

Some of us worship sports teams.  Some of us worship particular bands.  Some of us worship some specific restaurant, or car company or band or television channel. Or shampoo or soft drink or caffeinated beverage (oouch!)

Pop Culture cultivates this wide-spread worship within us because producers of pop culture like money and advertisers like to sell product.

Which makes for a perfect marriage.

We worship what we want, and, as Americans, we are free to worship anything we want!

I’m pretty sure this is not what either the Founders of the US or Jesus had in mind.

I believe we are missing the boat with this understanding of freedom of worship. We’re missing it on worship, and we’re also missing it on freedom.

Just briefly here’s how we are missing it on freedom. The kind of freedom Jesus talks about, and he does a lot of this talking in John 8, such as “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” A few verses later he says, “therefore, if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”

Jesus is not talking about his followers about freedom of the press, freedom to assembly, of religion, or any of the other “freedoms” Americans know and value.

Because, let’s face it, we don’t follow Jesus because a government says it’s okay for us to follow Jesus. We follow Jesus because the One who created us calls us to follow – whether any government allows it or not.

Now, on to how we miss it on worship:

There’s a good reason the 10 commandments start this way:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me.

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God (Exodus 20:2-5)

God knew then and God knows now that we are creatures hungry to worship. We’ve proven this true: you can find a person who worships anything!

But, of course, before we go pointing fingers at people who worship cats or dogs or trees or anything else, what do we worship?

Sure, we say we worship God – after all, we are here, right?! But on Thursday morning at 10:00, if we were to ask 5 people who knew you well what you worship, what would they say?

What does your calendar – the way you spend your time – say you worship?

What does your bank account or your credit card statement say you worship?

We worship God – the God we know first and foremost in Jesus – but this God is a passionate God, and wants, even demands, our worship.

While we are thankful that we live in a land where we are free to worship, we have to continually check our focus – what are we worshiping? Do I put God before every other thing that clamors for my attention, my money, my time?

Fast forward from Exodus 20 to 1 Samuel 8. The people, God’s people, have settled in the land God has given them. They have lived through several generations since Exodus 20.  They still tell those stories – reminding one another that God has delivered them; that God loves them!

By now, they’ve added other stories.  They’ve added stories about  Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and others.  God had raised up someone – called a Judge – to deliver God’s people whenever it was needed. But now, Samuel, the last Judge, was nearing death and the people wanted something else.

They wanted a king. Why? Because everyone else had a King!

So many years, so many generations, so little change!

We still want to be like everyone else. (But if everyone wants to be like everyone else, then who starts it?  We’ll talk more about this next week.)

God gave in to their request for a king.  Samuel wrote that this request for a king, driven by a desire to be like everyone else, is the people’s rejection of God.

We run the same risk when we want a king to take the place that God rightly holds in the lives of the people God has delivered.

Which brings us to the gospel reading for today. Which starts with this: “Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words.”

Have you ever known someone who tried to trap people in their words?  Are you someone who tries to trap people in their words?

Religion and politics were as challenging then as they are now!  God’s people had returned to their homeland, the Promised Land, but remained under the thumb of a king – Caesar.

The religious – the Pharisees – sought to trap Jesus – to catch him offending either church or state.  “Should we pay taxes?” they asked. If he answered yes, he favored Rome. If he answered no, they could turn him over to Rome for treason.  Either way, they would no longer have to deal with Jesus.

Yet Jesus was too wise for them.  We all know the middle way he chose: “show me the coin used to pay the tax,” he said.  It had Caesar’s picture on it, so, Jesus concluded that they should – and we should – “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

This sounds SO wise, so simple!

But how do we know the difference?

We learn the difference by following Jesus.

This passage is, of course, about far more than paying taxes.  It is about divided loyalty.

The challenge we have, even in America, is divided loyalty.  How do we know when to give Caesar our loyalty and when to give God our loyalty?  Please understand – though we don’t have a king (1 Samuel 8) and we don’t’ have a Caesar (Matthew 22), we have both.  I’ve called the President Caesar for more than 20 years now. Some like it more when I call Obama Caesar than George W. Bush, but the truth I believe God wants us to hear is that either, or both, in their elected position, function as Caesar.

Ah, but this is America!  The greatest Republic, the best representative democracy the world has ever known!  We have no Caesar!

There is some truth to this:  the place and time we are in history, this age of exceptional individualism, the rule of law being what it is, maybe the President isn’t Caesar.

If not, if we have been set free from the bondage of external royalty, then each of us has become his or her own King or Queen.

So: you are Caesar. I am Caesar.

And still, we must give to God what is God’s.

How do we learn, how do we know, what is God’s?

By following Jesus.

Sounds simple, right?  Let’s try it together.  For God and country.

God and Country

Truth in Advertising

BKyesandnoI know the picture to the left doesn’t look like me, but it is.
It is probably you, too.

The other day I took my kids to the BK that across the street from our church.  The kids like the playground there.

I got the best customer service I’ve ever received in that restaurant.  On my overall scale of fast-food expectation, the service was at least an 8 of 10.

Except for this: he suggested I try the new pulled pork sandwich.  One of the images above is from the menu board. The other is the actual sandwich I was served.

Can you guess which is which?

I wasn’t particularly happy. No amount of friendly service would have made up for the disappointment of barely being able to see the pork under the onions and pickles.  I think it tasted ok, but mostly I tasted bread. I expected, hoped for, the taste of pulled pork.

I know that in fast food in particular each menu item is very specifically defined for the kitchen staff.  There is a precise amount of each item for each product.  There is no room for creativity or interpretation on the part of the kitchen staff.

I felt pretty sure I hadn’t been shorted pork – at least not by the people working there. No, I had been shorted by the BK Corporation.

I shared my disappointment with the manager, who shared my sense of loss.

I didn’t think it fair to advertise that particular picture of the sandwich when the actual sandwich was so miserable and slight by comparison.

I never expect the food I actually receive in a restaurant to look as attractive as the image on the menu. I know better.  This seemed too much of a stretch for credibility, though. And it still does.

At the same time, I began to wonder how fair this serves as a metaphor for the way we live in public.

Too many of us present a version of ourselves to everyone around us that is not at all a reasonable facsimile of who we really are. Beyond “fake it till you make it,” too many of us live a facade and have for years.

How do you compare with the version of you your friends know?  with the social media version of you?  with the church version of you?  with the version of you your family knows?

May we all, by the grace of God, move our lives in the direction of a little more truth in advertising.

Who knows, maybe Burger King will follow suit!

Truth in Advertising

Pop Culture is GOOD for you!

Sermon #4 in our Pop Culture Series. Preached Sunday, June 21, 2015, at Euless First United Methodist Church.  Many thanks to Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You for a good part of the theme running through this message.Popculture2015summerbanner


“Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Ah, the simple black-and-white days of Dragnet. And Andy Griffith. And Adam 12. When everyone trusted police officers and police officers were all good.

It seems like the world was simpler back then. It seems that for some the world is still cut and dried, black and white.  Everything has a clear right and a clear wrong.

Then why is it so difficult to raise children to make good choices?

Why do many of us, if we are completely honest, find it really, really challenging, to consistently make good choices?

If life were always easy, I suppose we would have to come up with another word for it.  “Life” is complex, challenging, difficult, rewarding, frustrating, exciting, long, fast, short, slow, and usually some combination of these all at once.

Most of us adults – especially adults 30 and over – cannot imagine what it must be like to be an adolescent these days.  Used to be you could only be bullied at school or out in the neighborhood somewhere.  Now bullying follows you into your home via the internet.

Once upon a time you’d let your kids out of the house in the morning and not think about it again until they came home when they heard the dinner bell or until the sun was setting. Now a couple who lets their kids walk to the local park gets charged with negligence.

Once upon a time you could take your pick of any of the 3 channels and watch anything that was on during prime time together with your kids and everyone would enjoy it all together.

Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone else in the community and we all trusted one another.

We tell ourselves – and each other – all kinds of stories about how things used to be.  We tend to remember them as better than they actually were, but this isn’t all bad.  I read recently that if we want to be happier people, we’ll spend our time and money on experiences rather than things. Experiences, by memory, last longer than most things. And, better, memory is selective: we could have had a family vacation where the car broke down twice and the credit card was declined as we tried to get into Disney, but 15 years later what we remember is the adventure that we made of the trip anyway.

Some of the way we view the past through rose-colored glasses is probably healthy, but I fear that we are overdoing it these days.

As bad as some of you thing the world is right now, in 30 years you’ll look back to 2015 as “the best of times.”

Maybe Dickens was saying more than 12 words ought to be able to say when he opened The Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

It was, and always is, the best of times and the worst of times.

So what do we as followers of Jesus do with this? One response is to continue to endorse the past as good, the present as evil, the future as getting worse.

This is most noticeable when “Christian tv networks” air shows from broadcast TV as long as they are at least 15 years old.

Because shows were better – and better means more Christian? – back then?

Really?  We were more Christian back then?  Life was better back then?

The epitome of this is hearing an african american baby boomer lament for the good old days of the 1950s.  In the 1950s, few blacks in Texas could actually vote and they all had to drink from separate water fountains, see different doctors, stay at different hotels.

Were the old days really better?

There are some things about our past we would do well to recapture and reclaim, but we cannot go back in time and God’s Kingdom is in the future, not the past.

We need to move forward into the future God has for us. But we continue to move into the future that God has for us as though we are driving.  Since we still have cars that need us to drive them, you’ve probably noticed that the driver ought to keep his or her eyes on the road and the surroundings in front of the car.

But cars also have 3 mirrors that help a driver see behind.  A driver is at his or her best when able to watch the road ahead and make occasional and regular glances to the mirrors.

I believe life functions this way as well: if we intend to follow Jesus into the future God has for us, we must look mostly forward while making occasional and regular glances behind us.

Though it isn’t scripture, I do believe that if we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.

Pop Culture can help us learn from the past because Pop Culture is good for us. It is making us smarter. If we will let it.

In the days of Dragnet and Andy Griffith and Adam 12, each 30 minute episode was self-contained.  You could watch any episode and get everything you needed to know.  The shows were written, it seems now, so you and I wouldn’t even wonder if Joe Friday even had a personal life.

Were all his relationships as straightforward and clear-cut as the cases in each episode?  Does any actual human have relationships that are straightforward and clear-cut?

Then along comes Hill Street Blues in 1981.  Steven Bochco borrowed from Soap Operas the weaving together of multiple plot lines through each story.  Unlike Soaps, though, Hill Street Blues was only on once a week.

At first it was really challenging for viewers because it was unlike any other weekly tv drama. Some story lines lasted the entire season. Some overlapped seasons and developed across all 7 seasons.

In 1981 this was ground-breaking television.  In 2015, it feels slow-paced and stilted.

1989 gave us Seinfeld and the Simpsons. Both series made Hill Street Blues feel old. Both took the telling of a television story to the next level.

At least, that what Art Vandelay said about Seinfeld.

Did you know that Art Vandelay, a fictional name used by George Costanza (a fictional character) when he got really nervous (was he ever not nervous?), only appeared in 7 of the 172 episodes of Seinfeld.  Yet, if you were a Seinfeld insider, merely referring to Art Vandelay brought extra laughs, as well as an extra sense of satisfaction.

And you cannot watch an episode of The Simpsons – check that – you cannot enjoy an episode of The Simpsons – unless you really, really pay attention. To be fair, you can watch and laugh all the way through an episode of The Simpsons with no prior knowledge of the show or of the world around you.

But if you are astute – if you pay attention to the world around you, and if you are literate in pop culture, you will get so much more out of every episode!

Take the 1995 Halloween episode, for instance.  That 30 minute show – actually 22 when you account for advertising time – referred to at least 15 different movies: including, but not limited to, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Terminator, Terminator 2, The Pagemaster, The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Tron, and Poltergeist.

You don’t have to be smart to watch Seinfeld or The Simpsons, but watching them, and learning to catch all the integration of references to pop culture and historical events will make you smarter.

Seinfeld has been gone for 17 years and The Simpsons doesn’t really stand out in the crowd the way it used to.

But the real reason I share all this with you is because I think we need this help.  We need to be able to integrate and catch pop culture and historical and cultural references. We live in a world where things happen and change happens.  Time is relentless  And as the past disappears We’re on the verge of all things new.

30 years ago a “Children’s BIble” was a King James Version text with Precious Moments pictures included.

Did your kids understand King James English when they were young?  Did you?

Here’s another example – clear to me – on why we need, as followers of Jesus, to learn this lessons from Pop Culture.

Jeremiah 29:11 is probably a “life verse” for a lot of people. Look at the way we treat it:

<pictures – I’ve got 5 or so, maybe a couple seconds each>

But do you know what is actually happening in the time and culture to whom Jeremiah 29 was written?  They were in exile. They had been ripped from their homeland – the Promised Land – and taken to Babylon.  They knew the stories of the Glory Days – how wonderful, how glorious their past.  And now they were in Babylon.

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. (Psalm 137:1-6)

We’ve turned 29:11 to fluff, to perk us up when we can’t decide if we should go to church this week or go shopping instead.

Jeremiah 29:11 – I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. – was hard to hear for the people who wailed for relief and for a future in Babylon. But it was deeply reassuring that they COULD endure, that their God had NOT abandoned them. That God did indeed have a plan, a hope, a future in mind for them.

And the future God had in mind for them was an incredible future, no matter how horrible life was at the moment.

The future God has in mind for you and me, is an incredible future – IF we can trust God. God IS trustworthy!

Knowing that story behind and around Jeremiah 29:11 makes it say so much more than the fluff we put it in.

The same is true for everything Jesus did and said and taught.  Every story Jesus told, every thing Jesus did, fit precisely within the culture of God’s people living under the thumb of Rome.  To follow Jesus we must begin – or seek – to understand Jesus, and even to begin to understand Jesus we must learn the backstory, the culture, the history, the countless references small and large that the Gospel Writers embed in the accounts.

Pop Culture helps us do this because over the last 50 years pop culture has made us smarter. Or at least it has expected more of us.  As a whole, we have stepped up.  You and I can follow modern television without realizing the effort we put into it.

Doesn’t the greatest story ever told deserve the same time, attention, energy, effort?

The greatest story ever told, by the way, other than being a 4 hour 20 minute movie from 1961, is, of course, a reference to the story of Jesus.

Which, itself, has a good bit of backstory.

Here’s just a tiny bit.

You can find this phrase, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” carved in stone on any number of buildings across this country – and probably several others. It appears on college campuses, probably some government buildings, and, I wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t also on some high school buildings.

What a great phrase: You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!”

There is, of course, a context, or a backstory, and you heard it in this morning’s gospel reading.

Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

So, we take the part of what Jesus said, the part that abstracts it from him (Jesus), his life, his ministry, and his teachings, and we carve it into stone.

I think Jesus deserves for us to take this statement, that “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” in the context of the actual statement: “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

This is John’s Gospel after all.  This is the same Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the truth.”  The same Gospel where John writes (1:14) that

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

and, other than 1:14 and 8:32, “truth” appears 21 additional times in John’s Gospel.

There’s something going on here that is a little more complicated than an academic quest for some generic truth!

The Truth dwelt among us.  The Truth died on a cross. The Truth rose again, conquering death and initiating the Kingdom of God in this world.

This is the truth that Jeremiah says, in chapter 31, God will etch on our hearts. Not on buildings.

Now, there’s obviously a lot more going on here even than that.  Following that statement, the “Jews who believed in him” took up to argue with him and being children of Abraham, and what it means to be a child of Abraham.

Which is a whole lotta backstory!

The better we grasp the backstory, the hungrier we are to learn and to find and to mine the depths of this Truth, the closer we find ourselves to God.  The closer we find ourselves to God, the better chance we have of being part of what God is doing in the world.

And Pop Culture draws us, begs us, trains us, to seek the backstory, to learn the backstory. To settle for nothing less than the full, deep, rich experience of truth in our own lives.

Pop Culture is GOOD for you!

You and the Bible

bible-Sunlight2This past week I visited a Sunday School class where Luke 14:25-35 was the topic. The opening discussion focused on verse 26:

“Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple.

Actually, the focus was almost entirely on one word in that verse. The word? Hate.

After listening patiently to several people find different ways around Jesus actually telling people to hate, I offered this:

It is interesting to hear all of us talk around and explain away the use of the word hate.  But the word is “hate.” There’s no question about it.

I hope we’ll all be gracious and understanding when other people do the same thing with other parts of the Bible.

Let’s face it: everyone reads the Bible this way: we take some passages more literally and some less. We take some verses more seriously than others. We ALL use some scriptures to trump others.

We ALL do this.

May we all learn the skill of responding graciously and with the love of Jesus when someone takes a verse differently than we do!

You and the Bible

I want to know what love is!

This is the third sermon in our Pop Culture Series at Euless First United Methodist Church


Popculture2015summerbanner

rose-and-jack-titanic

Don’t you think that Rose could have made room for Jack on that door?

As I said last week, the power of love is a curious thing. Here are some of the lines of that song:

The power of love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
Change a hawk to a little white dove
More than a feeling that’s the power of love

You don’t need money, don’t take fame
Don’t need no credit card to ride this train
It’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life

Love Is Powerful!

Love: the power of love, the desire for love, the hurt of broken love, the loneliness of unrequited love, the depth of long-lasting love, the grandeur of love, the beauty of love, the loopy forgetfulness of new love

I think we spend more time and attention on love than any other single thing. I’m pretty sure love is the biggest, most popular topic in all of pop culture.

Love is pretty big in the Bible, too, and in being people who follow Jesus, or are trying to follow Jesus.

Love wins!  and love hurts! And love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

Love fills our songs, our books, our movies.

It fills our heads, our hearts, our minds, our memories, our dreams.

I want to know what love is!  I want you to show me!

And, of course, God is love. Here’s the actual text, and the context:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. (1 John 4:7-10)

All the efforts to portray, express, describe, illustrate, love in culture and pop culture share this one thing in common: they are all a lesser version of love than we have and know in Jesus.

And some come closer than others.  Some, you and I would argue, don’t come very close at all.  Some – maybe much – of the love we find in pop culture is barely love at all.  Some of it is a flat-out perversion of love.

To be fair, though, a lot of what we find among ourselves is barely love at all, and some of it is a flat-out perversion of love.

Love is patient: are you patient with your children? your parents? your spouse?

Love is kind: are you kind to your spouse? your parents? your children?

Parenthetically, those jokes you tell to and about your spouse that are bitter and cynical about an entire gender? those really aren’t very funny, and they certainly are not kind.

Love isn’t Jealous: are you jealous of your wife or husband?

Need I go on, or do you get the idea?

We could spend an entire sermon series on the many ways pop culture gets love wrong. But until you and I commit to improving our own love we don’t have much of a place to stand to criticize “them.”

Remember, we are called to engage culture.  The best way we can engage pop culture on the matter of love is to model and practice a love that looks more like Love. God is love.  The more our love reflects God’s love, the better our chance to actually have something to say to the cultures around us.

And, I believe, the more we reflect God’s love in our own love, the more we will earn the right to be heard.

I recently heard another preacher.  Ok, I listen to a fair number of preachers as a practice of improving my own preaching.  I want to learn what to do, and what not to do.  This other preacher, several times during his sermon, said, “You listen to me.”  He said it like this: “You listen to me!”

Now, I suppose there are times that saying “You listen to me” is a good rhetorical tool. But honestly, I believe that if I have to keep reminding you to listen to me, I’m not doing a very good job of speaking.

We have to earn the right to be heard.

Are we, as followers of Jesus, earning the right to be heard by the world around us?

For years – for centuries – Christians did not have to earn the right to be heard.  But this is no longer true.  If you and I want to share the good news of Jesus, and if we want other people to care enough to listen, we have to earn the right to be heard.

There is no better place for us to start than to love, and to reflect God’s love for us and for the world in our lives, in our relationships, and in our community.

And what does God’s love look like?  We see it in Jesus, we hear it in the familiar words of 1 Corinthians 13 that were so beautifully read for us this morning.

But we see it in the Old Testament as well. For instance, Can you feel the love right now in the Jeremiah reading?  These words are from God:

The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness.
As Israel searched for a place of rest,
the Lord appeared to them from a distance:
I have loved you with a love that lasts forever.
And so with unfailing love,
I have drawn you to myself.
Again, I will build you up,
and you will be rebuilt, virgin Israel.
Again, you will play your tambourines
and dance with joy.
Again, you will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria;
farmers will plant and then enjoy the harvests.
and I’m going to bring them back from the north;
will gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the disabled,
expectant mothers and those in labor;
a great throng will return here.
With tears of joy they will come;
while they pray, I will bring them back.
I will lead them by quiet streams
and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble.
and I will turn their mourning into laughter
and their sadness into joy;
I will comfort them. (Jeremiah 31: 2-5, 8-9, 14)

Sometimes we present a gospel (that a word for “good news” that we stole from Roman culture about 2000 years ago) that comes across as more about bitterness and rules and pressure. But God says:  I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them.

How do you understand God’s love?  How do you experience God’s love?

Culture is what we make of the world, and culture is about truth, or at least a search for expression of truth.

Jesus IS truth, so we must engage culture.

Love is ubiquitous in Pop Culture, or at least a search for love, or expressions of and about love.

God IS love, so we must engage culture.

Though we sometimes think that God has put all the eggs of the salvation of the world in the basket called “church,” this really isn’t so.

In every culture of the world, one can find actual, real truth. And all truth is God’s truth.

In every culture of the world, one can find love. And real, true love comes from God.

You and I have the opportunity to help others know true love, real love, God’s love.

And, like grace and truth, as we engage the world with what we know in Jesus and what we learn from following Jesus, we will find that love is before us in the world.

Take Julio Diaz, for instance.  Julio is a social worker in New York City. Let him tell you this story:

Julio Diaz Thank you to StoryCorps for this story!

JD: So I get off the train. You know, I’m walking towards the stairs and this young teenager, uh, pulls out a knife. He wants my money. So I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go.’

He starts to leave and as he’s walking away I’m like, ‘Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re gonna be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.’

So, you know, he’s looking at me like, ‘What’s going on here?’ You know, and he asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’

And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know, man, if you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was go get dinner and, uh, if you really want to join me, hey, you’re more than welcome.’

So I’m like, ‘Look, you can follow me if you want.’

You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help. So, you know, we go into the diner where I normally eat and we sit down in the booth and the manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi – you know so…

The kid was like, ‘Man but you know like everybody here. Do you own this place?’

I’m like, ‘No, I just eat here a lot.’

He’s like, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.’

I’m like, ‘Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?’

So he’s like, ‘Yeah, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way.”

So I just asked him in the end I’m like, ‘What is it that you want out of life?’

He just had almost a sad face. Either he couldn’t answer me or he didn’t want to. The bill came and I look at him and I’m like, ‘Look, uh, I guess you’re gonna have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this so if you give me my wallet back I’ll gladly treat you.’

He didn’t even think about it he’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, here you go.’

So I got my wallet back and I gave, you know, I gave him twenty dollars for it. You know, I figure, uh, maybe it’ll help him – I don’t know. And when I gave him the twenty dollars, I asked him to give me something in return – which was his knife – and he gave it to me.

You know, it’s funny ’cause when I told my mom about what happened – not mom wants to hear this but – at first she was like, ‘Well, you know, you’re the kind of kid if someone asked you for the time you gave them your watch.’

I don’t know, I figure, you know, you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.

I don’t know anything about Julio Diaz’s religious faith. But I know, from that story, that Julio knows something about real love – the kind of love that comes from God.

Now I’d like you to meet Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel.  First, let me tell you how they met.  He killed her son. In 1993, Oshea Israel was a teenager in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One night at a party Oshea got into a fight, which ended when he shot and killed Laramiun Byrd, Mary Johnson’s son.

Oshea has been arrested, tried, and convicted. He has finished serving his prison sentence for second-degree murder.

Here is a conversation between them.

Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson Thank you StoryCorps for this story!

Mary Johnson (MJ): You and I met at Stillwater Prison. I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you. But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.

Oshea Israel (OI): And he became human to me. You know, when I met you it was like, ok, this guy, he’s real. And then, when it was time to go, you broke down and started shedding tears. The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can–just hug you like I would my own mother.

MJ: After you left the room, I began to say: “I just hugged the man that murdered my son.” And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you–I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.

OI: As far as receiving forgiveness from you–sometimes I still don’t know how to take it because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet. It’s something that I’m learning from you – I won’t say that I have learned yet – because it’s still a process that I’m going through.

MJ: I treat you as I would treat my son. And our relationship is beyond belief. We live next door to one another.

OI: Yeah. So you can see what I’m doing–you know first hand. We actually bump into each other all the time leaving in and out of the house. And, you know, our conversations, they come from “Boy, how come you ain’t called over here to check on me in a couple of days? You ain’t even asked me if I need my garbage to go out!”

MJ: Uh-huh.

OI: I find those things funny because it’s a relationship with a mother for real.

MJ: Well, my natural son is no longer here. I didn’t see him graduate. Now you’re going to college. I’ll have the opportunity to see you graduate. I didn’t see him getting married. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to experience that with you.

OI: Just to hear you say those things and to be in my life in the manner that which [sic] you are is my motivation. It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path. You still believe in me. And the fact that you can do it despite how much pain I caused you–it’s like amazing.

MJ: I know it’s not an easy thing, you know, to be able to share our story together. Even with us sitting here looking at each other right now, I know it’s not an easy thing. So I admire that you can do this.

OI: I love you, lady.

MJ: I love you too, son.

God’s love is here. We see it best in Jesus, but we see it throughout the Old Testament. We even see it in the world around us.

Can the world see it in us?

Can your family see this love in you?

If not, now is the time.  Step into God’s love: the love that was there for you and for me from the foundation of the world.  The love that never fails, is patient and is kind. The Love that puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. The love God has for you, for me, and for everyone in the world.

Step into God’s love.  Ask for it, accept it, receive it, then start learning to live in it, to share it, to grow in it, to pass it on.

The world around us wants to know what love is.  They want you to show them!

I want to know what love is!

I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!

ac15-bannerThis is no surprise to any who know me, but I sometimes slip into cynicism.  Though I have worked hard on this over the last decade, and I think I’ve improved (by that I mean I display less cynicism), but I still have work to do.

One of the things that brings out my cynicism the most is Annual Conference (AC). Because this year’s AC begins this Sunday evening, I have been giving thought to both the set of meetings and to my devolution into cynicism.

As I have already shared, I believe I am less cynical, and cynical less often, than I used to be.  I spend less time and waste less energy on cynicism than I used to.  This may be partly due to learning that as I age, I have less total energy so I want to waste less of it on being cynical.

But I’ve recently considered another possibility.

I think that, at least in my case, cynicism and lack of trust are related.  In fact, I am pretty sure they are positively correlated.

In other words, the less I trust a person or institution, the more cynical I am about it.

(I bet I am not the only one.)

If you haven’t worked it through this way, I trust the institution of the Annual Conference, in all it hierarchical and bureaucratic glory, more than I used to.

I don’t yet know if this is because the system has earned my trust, if I have become more trusting, or some combination of the two.

It may even simply be that I have more invested in the system now. I don’t think about retirement often, but even that could be in part due to my expectation that this system wil provide a fitting retirement for me following all my years of service.

My lower levels of cynicism and greater willingness to trust (I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!) may in fact be due to something else.

I currently serve as pastor of Euless First United Methodist Church. This is the largest church I’ve ever served as pastor. There are many people – many different people. All but one of whom are not me.

As pastor, anything I want to do here, any direction I want to lead, any change I feel led to call for, all relies on my ability to build trust with the congregation.

Maybe I am less cynical because I want people not to be cynical about me.

I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!