What is our product?

weekfive.jpgSermon #5 in our Branded Series. This sermon concludes the series.

Branded

“If I only had a brain….” That’s the earworm that Lee Swann stuck me with last Sunday. Thank you!

Maybe now you’ve got it playing over and over, too. If so, you’re welcome!

I remember growing up watching “The Wizard of Oz,” by Frank Baum, every year when it came on TV. I am young enough to be not really too impressed that some of it was done in color, but we all loved the story.  Though, I admit, for several years I was scared of those flying monkeys!

Not long before I first saw the movie, in 1964, that Henry Littlefield unlocked the secrets of the story.  It was a populist allegory, he claimed, and was written as a commentary on turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th century) monetary policy. The yellow brick road was the gold standard, Emerald City represented the fraudulent greenback, or us currency without the gold standard. The Strawman was the american farmer, the tin man industrial workers, and the cowardly lion William Jennings Bryan.

Littlefield explanation of the story has since been discounted, but that, of course, doesn’t mean there aren’t other versions.

Like the religious version: the yellow brick road is the “way to enlightenment.” The emerald city represents heaven, and each of the main characters a particular version of human temptation or frailty.  The wicked witch of the west, being killed with water that represents baptism.

At least as plausible is the atheist allegorical explanation. There is no real wizard, just a human behind a curtain.

Some of you might like the feminist version. Frank Baum, the author, was son-in-law of a leading suffragist. All the characters who actually have any power in the movie are women.

You might have your own version of what the Wizard of Oz means. You might not – maybe you have never even seen the movie.

We are story-driven people, and our brains are meaning-making machines!  If there isn’t a story, we’ll make one. Where there isn’t meaning, we will make it up and overlay it.

No one tells a story for no reason, do they?  It might not be the most obvious reason, but there is a reason.

Today we remember the story of Pentecost.  You might wonder why we haven’t read the story of Pentecost from the scriptures.  You might not.  The story is in Acts 2.  I could tell you the reason I didn’t have it read is that I love our liturgists and didn’t want to make them read verses 9-11, which read:

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!         (Acts 2:9-11)

So, here is the story.  You can read the official version in Acts 2.  In fact, please read it sometime today.  Let me know what you think!

The disciples, having recently watched Jesus ascend into heaven, are meeting on the day of Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, a Feast Day on which God’s people gathered to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While waiting, the Holy Spirit shows up and fills them!

Filled with the Spirit, they step before the crowds and start speaking in tongues – languages – so that everyone, all those Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, etc., can understand them!

When you let the Holy Spirit speak through you, a lot less is lost in translation!

When we let the Holy Spirit speak, people will be able to hear us in their own language!

Having never heard anything like this, some of the crowds guessed the disciples were drunk – speaking out of their minds!  

Peter stood up to preach.  He preached; told them the story of Jesus in terms of some of the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.

“God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.”

This is the final message of our Branded series.  The premise is that Jesus is, or would be, branded. Branding, you recall, is not just a logo or a jingle, but an image or video or song that connects people (customers) with a story.

On that first day of Pentecost, the telling of God’s story brought 3,000 into the community of faith.

What will you do with this story?

For four weeks we have summarized God’s story. For four weeks we have talked about being made in God’s image – that we ALL bear the brand of God and God’s story, and that God’s story is one of hope and forgiveness and healing and reconciliation. Thus branded, we are, with God, in the business of making disciples; followers of Jesus. To make disciples, we have to be disciples. Last week we talked about getting to know what other people, people who don’t know Jesus and aren’t followers of Jesus, value. I claimed last Sunday, and still firmly believe, that when we practice the patience of listening to other people’s stories, we will learn what they value. By listening to others, we will also earn the right to be heard when we tell God’s story and how it has impacted us; changed us.

So, today, the finale.

Has God’s story changed us?

We are, you see, the product we have to offer.

As Christians, we ought to be inviting others to follow Jesus. To do so with integrity means we have to be following Jesus. We have to be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, “watch what I do, follow my example, follow Jesus the way I follow Jesus.”

Otherwise we are just making up a meaning to someone else’s story.

Pentecost is a grand point in the story where we learn, as Peter says, how to make God’s story our own story. After his sermon, the people ask, “What should we do? Peter answered:

“Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”

This IS the meaning to God’s story!  And the promise is “for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord God invites”

Our lives, lived as evidence, with evidence, of the Holy Spirit’s work in us IS the product we have to offer!

Flannery O’Connor wrote many beautiful stories.  Most of them are haunting, too. One of my favorites, one that haunts me, is “The River.”

In this story, Mrs. Connin comes to pick up young Harry from his parents, as his babysitter for the day.  Harry’s mom is sick – we learn a little later she is hungover. Mrs. Connin is a committed Christian woman and is excited to take Harry down to the river, where an evangelist named Bevel is healing and preaching.  Mrs. Connin hadn’t known Harry’s name, and asks him what it is, after telling him about this preacher. “Bevel,” Harry tells her.

He wants to please this Christian woman. He wants to find a place in her story.

At the river, she identifies him to the Preacher has having not been baptized. So Harry, or Bevel, is baptized.  It sounds good, too; the life that the preacher describes following baptism is far different from the drab, bleak, miserable life that is Harry’s, or Bevel’s, up to this point in the story.

Alas, he comes up out of the water the same. He is taken home, and sent off to bed, life is the same.

The story ends the next morning, Harry, or Bevel, having taken himself back to the river, and determined to hold himself under the water until he finds that wonderful life the preacher was talking about.

I read “The River” for the first time about 25 years ago. I cried as I finished it. Then I got up and went into my first child, Robbie’s room, where she lay napping. I cried quietly, and prayed. I hope and prayed that she would know God’s story in a way that gave her hope, not in a way that left her so disillusioned that she would drown herself looking for some great, good, place I had promised.

The Christian Hope you and I have to offer is the hope that others can see in our lives.  If it is a hope we tell them about, we had better be willing to live it, too!

This morning’s scripture readings – both shorter than the Acts passage, and both noticeably absent of difficult-to-pronounce Bible names, remind us of the goodness of God’s story, and of the promise of OUR place in it, and our role in sharing it with others.

All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.     (Romans 8:14-17)

and

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”   (John 14:8-17, 25-27)

We are baptizing one young woman and welcoming her, another young woman and two young men into membership in the Church this morning.  Not just “our” church, but THE Church.  The church that represents Jesus Christ. The Church in which the Holy Spirit lives and is active.

The Church where God’s story is lived out and lived into.

The Church where our lives are changed as we actually follow Jesus day by day.

Will  you join me in committing to these young people that we WILL “surround them with a community of love and forgiveness ”? Will you pray for them, “that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to faith”?

And you know, don’t you, that really the way THEY will be true disciples is as the see and experience US being true disciples.

We are the product. Our lives, moved and changed by the Holy Spirit are what we have to offer!

 

#UMCGC and moving on to perfection

perfection meme

Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

For at least the last 25 years, I have answered this question, “Yes, by the grace of God.”

The other seven members of my ordination class in the Texas Annual Conference in 1991 answered the same. As far as I know, every ordained United Methodist has answered the same way.

I was pretty sure that the eight of us didn’t have exactly the same understanding of what this question meant. No one asked. No explanation, no dissertation was required

I can tell you that I full on loved that question!  Fresh out of Asbury Seminary, I was deeply committed to living into Christian Perfection. Wesley’s teaching on perfection played an essential role in my choice of seminary.

When I was 27 I fully expected, by the grace of God, to be made perfect in love in this life.

Today, at 52 I still fully expect, by the grace of God, to be made perfect in love in this life.

My understanding of what it means, and towards what, particularly, I am moving, has changed. If it hadn’t, I would have serious reservations about my fitness for effective ministry.

I haven’t talked to anyone from my ordination class in at least 20 years.  This is partly because I have changed conferences; I am now a clergy member of the Central Texas Conference.

Occasionally I wonder what the 27 year old Steve Heyduck would think of the 52 year old version. There would be some serious disagreements. And yet, we are together. I wouldn’t be the me I am today had I not been him then.

I wouldn’t be committed today to being made perfect in love in this life were it not for my original commitment then. With 25+ years on this path, then, I have to think I’m closer now than I was then.  If I didn’t believe this, I would owe it to the Church to surrender my credentials and find another vocation.

 

STOP looking at Jesus!

This picture did it. Threw me across the line I’ve been toeing for several days, if not weeks.
barry gibb Jesus

Seems pretty harmless, right? Maybe even encouraging? Even if you realize, as I did the moment I saw it, that this is a picture of Barry Gibb, one of the Bee Gees.

Today we celebrate the Ascension.  The story is told in Acts 1:1-11.  40 days after the resurrection, Jesus “was lifted up,” (ascended) into heaven.  Today is that day this year – 40 days after Easter.

Immediately after the ascension, Luke, the author of Acts, tells us,

While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”     -Acts 1:10-11

This is the part of the Ascension story I want to focus on today. And, maybe, every day.

Today I echo the words of those two men in white robes:

STOP looking at Jesus!

Barry Gibbs/Jesus helped me grasp this, so now I share it with you.  We do too much looking at Jesus.

I think all these images of Jesus we surround ourselves with distract us from actually following Jesus. To be fair, it’s not Barry Gibbs’ fault. Here is a collage of many of the images of Jesus found around our church, Euless First United Methodist Church

Jesus at Euless FUMC

When we make Jesus look like a first century person, we are distracted from the realities of 21st century life.  However heart warming it is to see a picture of a bearded, robed guy, most of us don’t look at actually, living, bearded guys in robes with any such positive thoughts. This kind of removing Jesus from our current context too easily leads to nostaglic dreaming of all kinds of days-gone-by.  I’m pretty sure Jesus would rather we live today.

When we insert a image of Jesus into a current situation, we create space for us to back out of the challenging part of following Jesus. Are you tired, stressing out, even depressed?  Facing tough times?  Grieving the loss of a loved one or poor choices your children (or parents) are making? Here’s a picture of Jesus to tide you over to get you through.  No!  The picture of Jesus that Jesus wants you and me to share with the hurting is the Imago Dei (image of God) that we carry in our beings!

May you experience all the joy of the Ascension: knowing that Jesus is in heaven, and that he didn’t leave us here to stare up at heaven, or at pictures, looking at Jesus.  He left us, commissioned us, is counting on us, to continue his work.

So, STOP looking at Jesus and follow him!

 

weekthree

Who are our customers?

Sermon #3 in our Branded series, preached Sunday, May 1 at Euless First United Methodist Church

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“I gave you a $20. You gave me change for a 10!”

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn working a counter register or the drive-through window at McDonald’s was “The customer is always right.” In this particular case, this is why we were trained to leave the bill or bills the customer gave us lying across the top of the cash drawer until after the exchange was complete.

Honestly, if you were selling $1000 an hour worth of McDonalds in the early 80’s, and we were, it was pretty easy to slip the bill into its slot and move on to counting out the change, and forget if they paid with a $5, a $10, or a $20. And it was pretty easy to miskey the amount tendered.

I’ll just admit this: it was pretty easy to make any of a HUGE variety of mistakes; which, I’m sure, is why every job a crew person could do at McDonald’s was laid out step-by-step.

But, really, “the customer is always right”?  If the customers know that, won’t they all try to take advantage of you?  

Apparently not.  Over the years and thousands of customers, I have no doubt that a few folk intentionally took advantage.  Most, though, were too busy just living their own lives to be constantly looking for ways to cheat or take advantage of others.

(If you feel strongly that everyone, or almost everyone is usually looking for ways to cheat or take advantage of others, I suggest what you are seeing is reflective of something within yourself)

So, this morning, let’s begin with this question, How does ‘the customer is always right’ figure into the metaphor we have been pursuing with this “Branded” sermon series?  

That question begs this additional question: who are our customers?

But, before we get to that, here’s a recap of the first two weeks of the series:  The BRAND we all share is that we are created in God’s very image as reminders for each other, and for ourselves when we look in a mirror, of who our Creator is. Even more than that, the BRAND we all share is God’s story; because a brand is not a picture or logo or song or video: a brand is the story evoked by the picture, logo, song, or video.

So we, as human beings, all bear the image of God, and this image is linked to God’s story. Here is a short version of God’s story (would you understand if I called it the “reader’s digest condensed version?)

Act 1: creation – good and very good! Act 2: sin, Act 3: Israel – God raises up a people to reach all the rest of the people Act 4: Jesus -Jesus becomes the faithful human in and through whom all are offered healing and hope from their sin Act 5: Church – Church is literally a  “called-out people” whom God intends to embody the Kingdom of God already present on earth, here and now.

That’s the Brand we all share.  Last week we built on this by defining the business we are in. We are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ, and we can only make disciples by being disciples. Being a disciple is really pretty straightforward: it is following Jesus.

The more and the more closely we follow Jesus, the more we will come to find ourselves becoming more like Jesus.

So, that’s the Brand we all share, and the business we are in.

Some of you may still be uncomfortable with the branding/business metaphor.  I use this metaphor based on the belief that Jesus taught in metaphors of fishing and shepherding and the like because that was the world he lived in.  I fully believe that if Jesus were here among us today, he would use metaphors that are familiar to us – among them, those of shopping, business, branding, and, though it is still difficult for me to admit this, consumerism.

Sticking with this metaphor, I ask you this morning, if our business is making disciples, then who are our customers?

I want to clarify this: Our business is NOT being disciples, but making them. Abraham’s mission in Genesis 12 was to

“Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
   those who curse you I will curse;
       all the families of the earth
           will be blessed because of you.”  (Genesis 12:1-4)

Likewise, Jesus’ mission is well summed up in this morning’s Gospel reading:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  (John 3:16-17)

And again, as Paul cites in Philippians 2:

Though he was in the form of God,
       he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
       by taking the form of a slave
       and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
       he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
       even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
       and gave him a name above all names,
   so that at the name of Jesus everyone
       in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
       and every tongue confess that
           Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:6-11)

And leading into this magnificent poetry, Paul writes, “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.”

So the customer is “all the families of the earth,” and “the world,” as in “that the world might be saved through him.”

Let me make this clear: like Abraham, Jesus, and Paul, We are NOT the customer.  We once were the customer, but, within this metaphor, we’ve been hired on, and now you and I are at the cash register ready to take people’s orders and do business for our brand.

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on this truth: you and I are NOT the customer!  If we are already disciples of Jesus Christ, then we are no longer the customer.

A brief riff on what it means that we aren’t the customer.  Worship isn’t about what you and I “want.” You and I aren’t the audience in worship, even IF you are a customer – someone who hasn’t yet decided to follow Jesus.

It is too easy for us, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, to get caught up in what we want worship to be, what we think worship ought to be.  But remember, God is the audience of worship, not you and me.  What God wants in worship, what God wants from worship, is for us to acknowledge God. What God wants from worship is for God’s story to be remembered, recited, re-invigorated, carried forth into our lives and into the world.

This is HUGE!  This means that what we do here, for the brand, to “sell” the brand to others, or to make disciples, cannot be about what you and I want. It is about the brand and the customer.

Is the customer always right?  Honestly, no.  But few of us have the chops to decide when the customer is right and when he or she isn’t.

As a crew member at McDonald’s, I had to operate from the position of the customer always being right. When this got challenging, I couldn’t make the call, I had to call the manager, and let the manager decide.

I believe we should operate from the same perspective.

The manager was better trained to be able to do what really needed to be done if the customer was, in fact wrong, and that was to find a way to stand firm without alienating the customer.

If our customers are “everyone out there” who isn’t already a disciple of Jesus and who doesn’t have a church family, how do we find ways to interact with them where we can stand firm as disciples without alienating them?

I don’t know if this helps or not, but according to the Gospels, about the only people Jesus alienated are the really religious. Oh, yeah, and maybe that rich guy who didn’t want to share.

Sometimes, we as followers of Jesus wear our ability to alienate people like a badge of honor. When we do so, we are not serving the business we are in, and we are not following Jesus.

Looking at the gospel in the metaphor of sales and consumerism, the customer is anyone who has not yet accepted the Gospel as truth and began following Jesus.

Ah, but today’s gospel reading reminds us it isn’t only them, “out there” who are customers. Nicodemus was an insider.  He was a Pharisee, a religious leader. But Nicodemus recognized a disconnection between his own life and what Jesus was teaching, so he came to Jesus, humble, and curious, to learn. Perhaps, even, to follow, to become a disciple.

So, for the customers – all those out there and in here who are willing, like Nicodemus, to acknowledge a disconnection between their life and what Jesus is teaching, can we, as followers of Jesus, treat them, our customers, as if they are always right?

Even if we are firmly convinced they are NOT?

So, when in doubt; let’s check with the manager.  In our lives as disciples, Jesus is the manager.

When you find it most difficult to assume someone else is right, but your goal is to invite them, or win them, or convince them, to follow Jesus, it is on you to keep the conversation open.

If, that is, you want to make the sale. Which means you believe Jesus, and following Jesus, is a valuable experience that God, and you, want everyone to have. You are a disciple, and you want to make more disciples. That is the business we are in!

There are challenging people out there!  There are challenging people in here!  I personally have driven some of you near crazy!

And there are people in the world around us – in our community, in our schools, our neighbors, our co-workers, who make it really difficult for us to remember, sometimes, that Jesus loves them, too, at least as much as Jesus loves us.

So, when it gets difficult, invite Jesus into your challenge.

What do you think Jesus would say? That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

If they are part of “the world,” then God loves them, and sent Jesus for them, and they are our customer.

So, when you have trouble, don’t walk away from the sale, but invite Jesus in.

Our job is to treat our customers well enough that, even if they don’t get their money back, or their order corrected, or free food, they might still consider coming back.

Can you treat all customers in a way that even if they don’t buy what you’re selling this time, they might consider coming back another time?

Anyone who walked away from Jesus disappointed or their wishes or expectations unfulfilled was pretty clear it was on them, not on Jesus.

Can you and I learn to treat our customers this well?

Are you willing to live in this simple phrase from the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:18: If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.

Let me put that in context for you:

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. 

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.        (Romans 12:9-21)

Who are our customers?  Anyone, everyone who can become a disciple of Jesus Christ.  How do we reach our customer, how do we make them our customer – how do we convince them that they want – or need – what we have?

We begin by learning to do this: If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.

I feel compelled to add this: we cannot let ourselves off so easy on the “to the best of your ability” part.  If you follow Jesus, you don’t get to throw up your hands and say, “well, I’m just a sinner,” or
“That’s just the human condition!” or whatever other line you and I use in our heads to cop out on following Jesus.

One of the worst is “Don’t look at me, look at Jesus!” Oh, pullease! No one will look at the Jesus you point to over there if that Jesus looks a lot different from the one you are modeling.

We owe it to our customers – to those we would reach for Christ; we owe it to God – to welcome God’s transforming power into our lives so we can say, “this following Jesus thing that I am trying to sell you, look at how it works in my life!”

And, to close, one of the most obvious ways you and I, as followers of Jesus, can “to the best of our ability, live at peace with all people.”

Will you join me in refusing to participate in the demeaning name-calling and venom-spewing that is our presidential election season?

Projection Rejection

One of the most challenging part of learning to work at McDonald’s in high school was grasping the “customer is always right” mantra.

Is the customer, indeed, always right?  Of course not. But if it costs you a little this time and they return as a customer, many stores choose to err on the side in favor of the customer always being right.

It just struck me that many of the customers are likely aware of this dictum.  And yet very, very few take advantage of it in a dishonest way.  I suppose you might say there is a broad-based social agreement in favor of respecting others. Whether I am the customer or the cashier, I am more focused on getting through my day as well as I can than I am on cheating someone else out of something.

But is this really a fair assumption? The tension I read on social media and see and hear on newsfeed might have one believe otherwise.

Some of us are indeed very suspicious that most everyone else out there is really out to get the better of us, to cheat us or hurt us or take advantage of us.

There is, it seems, an awful lot of suspicion of the other going around.  I’m not sure this has increased recently, but perhaps it has.  I know social media magnifies it.

As I contemplated an assumption of a broad-based social agreement of respect in terms of this (seemingly) increased level of mistrust and disrespect, and was stopped dead in my tracks with this:

How much of our increased mistrust and disrespect finds its source in projection?

When I am less trusting, it is often because I feel less trustworthy myself.   When I am feeling good about myself, I tend to be more generous and trusting of others.

I wouldn’t presume to tell you that all of your issues or suspicions or mistrust of some other person or group of people is entirely your projection of your own fear or lack of confidence or uncertainty or dissatisfaction with yourself.

But I will offer you this challenge: will you join me in rejecting the projecting of your own stuff onto others?

The more of us who do this, the more space, I believe, we create for the presence of the Kingdom of God here and now.

The BRAND we all share

We have just begun a new sermon series at Euless First United Methodist Church. This series was inspired by a presentation Mike Slaughter made at FUMC Hurst in February of this year.BrandedHere is the first sermon from the series, preached Sunday morning, April 17, 2016. weekone

It all started April 23, 1985. 31 years ago next Saturday.

That’s when “new coke” was released.  The Coca-Cola company chose to change the 99 year old recipe concocted by Dr. John Pemberton.

It was a disaster. Or was it?

The company promised it would keep the newer formulation.  Their research had determined younger generations would like it better.

New generations didn’t. New Coke went away. Thousands of calls and letters later, Old Coke, or regular Coke, or, as you may remember it, “Coke Classic” reappeared in July.

On June 14, 1999, New Coke made Time magazine’s “100 worst ideas of the 20th century.” Glenwood Davis, marketing manager for Coca-Cola in Roanoke, Va, recalled receiving a letter from a woman who wrote:”There are only two things in my life: God and Coca-cola. Now you have taken one of those things away from me.”

That’s serious stuff.

But was it really a disaster?  Coke increased sales that year by 8% – twice their target. “New Coke,” of course, gave us “Classic Coke,” or the same old coke people had been drinking for 99 years, but now, somehow, it was new again.

Jesus was, in many respects, the same old message of God’s desire to redeem creation and reconcile the world to himself, but now, in Jesus, it was somehow new again. In Jesus, God’s people were confronted with a rollout of a seemingly new product. The point was, I am convinced, to restore or renew the message God had been about since the beginning of time.

I am not saying Jesus was New Coke.  I am also not saying Jesus was Coke Classic.

It’s hard for us to put such terms on Jesus; I’ll grant you that. Even “Jesus as CEO” or “Jesus as marketing guru” or “Sales Genius” catch us wrong.

But what about Jesus as shepherd?  Or the master farmer, Prophet, Priest, or King?  Sure, you can imagine those images “fitting” Jesus.  Jesus told stories about shepherds and farmers, prophets, priests, and kings. Jesus told stories about widows and rich men and merchants, too.

Jesus told the stories he told to reach the people he was talking to. Jesus didn’t tell farmer stories and use agricultural metaphors for the Kingdom of God because farmers are closer to the earth, or because that way of life was more primitive or less advanced and therefore better or preferred by God.

Jesus taught the way he taught, and used the stories, illustrations, and metaphors he used because these were precisely the stories, illustrations, and metaphors that would reach his audience.

How is the world today the same as it was in Jesus’ day? How is it different?

You aren’t a farmer.  You aren’t a shepherd. You aren’t a prophet, priest or king. Some of you are merchants.

You are a consumer. You are a shopper.  This is the world we live in. I have become convinced recently that these are the kinds of stories, illustrations, and metaphors that might reach us today the way Jesus’ stories, illustrations, and metaphors reached his audience.

Hence this sermon series: Branded.  For the next five weeks (today and four more Sundays), we will be looking at the truth in God’s Word generally and the life and teachings of Jesus specifically through the same lens we view all the world, all our lives through.

So, an honest reflection.  I had been pastor here no more than a month when I had a conversation with another staff member.  She said something buying or selling – I honestly can’t remember now. I responded with something like, “You know, as followers of Jesus, we are not just consumers!”

She might have called me “hippie.” Or socialist, or communist, I don’t know.  But she did say, “You aren’t going to try to tell me Jesus doesn’t want us to be consumers, are you?”

I replied, quickly, easily, and calmly: “No; that’s not what I’m saying.  But I am saying this – our most basic identity as human beings is NOT that we buy stuff or consume stuff.  Our most basic identity as human beings is that we are children of God – that God created us in God’s own image for fellowship with God, to live in relationship with God, and to be stewards over God’s creation.”

We are consumers; but we are first and foremost children of God who have lost our way and wandered from our identity as God’s children.

In Jesus’ day, the people were farmers and fishermen and shepherds and merchants. But they were first and foremost children of God who had lost their way and wandered from their identity as God’s children.

So, for the next 5 weeks, I hope you’ll stick with us for Branded!

Now, back to Coke.

How did Coca-cola get to New Coke from the pinnacle they had reached in 1971?  I don’t know if 1971 was a peak of sales for Coke, but their brand hit a high point.

And it happened in 1971 because this is not Coke’s brand.CocaCola

This is Coke’s brand, straight outta 1971, but many of you could sing right along with it this morning: https://youtu.be/2msbfN81Gm0

I want to make sure you get this: branding isn’t the image or logo. Branding is the story that the image or logo or song or video evoke. The image exists to connect us with a story.  The image doesn’t work if it doesn’t connect us with a story.

Because we are story driven.  Everything about us wants to be part of a story. We will even settle for being a bit-part in a story someone else wrote rather than not being in any story at all.  We have even settled for the story that we get to make up our own story as we go along.

What story drives your life?  Is it a story you made up, or one someone else made up?  Is it the story God is telling?

Well, I’ve got good news for you this morning.  There is a brand we all share.  There is a story we all share, and it is tied to an image. Let’s start with the image. Look at the person next to you.  Now the person on the other side of you.  

THIS is the meaning of Genesis 1:27

God created humanity in God’s own image,
       in the divine image God created them,
           male and female God created them.

No really. This is the exact meaning of that passage!  Back in the day when Genesis was written, it was not so easy to rule a large area as it is today.  There was, you know, no internet, no telephone, no highway.  A ruler could, of course, just raise a huge army and station troops everywhere, but a  ruler who desired his subjects to live in peace would know that living under the constant watch of a soldier doesn’t inspire peace or favor.  So a ruler’s power was stronger closer to home than far away.  So a kingdom’s boundaries might be a hundred miles from the throne or capital city, but the king’s power dissipated with distance.

So, yes, the king could post troops, and kings did.  But they also developed another practice. After all, they wanted their subject to know not only that they were under the king’s authority, but also under the king’s protection – in an extended sense, part of the King’s family. So, in addition to troops, the king would have statues – probably busts – chest up – of himself made and spread throughout the land.  Thus, whenever anyone of the king’s subjects saw a bust of the king, they would be reminded that there was a king, and who the king was.  The word for that was “image.”  

The image of the king was placed throughout the kingdom as a reminder of who the King was.

We have been placed throughout the earth in the image of God, our Creator, as reminders that there is a King, and of who the King is.

Now, to know and understand, or even begin to understand, who this King is, required more than an image. It requires a story.

Thus the brand that we all share.

There is a story – God’s story – that is bigger than your story or my story. In fact, God’s story is big enough to contain your story and my story.

God’s story is so big that it really cannot be contained.  For instance, look at today’s gospel reading. They were trying to catch Jesus in a trap – make him choose between God and Caesar, or between God and government. “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Now, of course, by ‘Law,’ they meant the Law of Moses – God’s law.

You know how Jesus responded, “Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription does it have?”

Caesar’s. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God (say it with me) what is God’s.

So, what is Caesar’s? What is God’s?

It seems simple: Caesar’s image is on the coin, so God’s people are to pay taxes.  But wait – Caesar’s image also bears the image of God!

So, yes, God’s people are to pay taxes, but even here we encounter God’s story – the brand we all share!

Upon reflection, though, we sometimes live our lives more like the New Coke part of the story than the 1971 “I want to teach the world to sing” ad part of the story.

This brand that we all share – you, and me and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, every Syrian refugee, that homeless guy with whom you avoided eye contact, and that person who cut you off in traffic last Friday.

By the way, the instant you were cut off in traffic, before you saw the driver, what did you make up about who it was?  A woman? An elderly person? A foreigner? A kid who just got their learner’s permit? A pastor late to a funeral?

Yes, that person, and whatever stereotype you might have had of that person bears the image of God, and that image invites you to a story.

This story is bigger than your story or my story or our stories put together. It is bigger than the story of Texas or of the United States. It is bigger than the story of Methodism or Christianity.

This story is God’s story. It is told in the Bible, and it carries on today. God’s story is this: God created – us in God’s own image, for fellowship and to steward, manage, look after, care for, all of this grand and glorious creation. That’s act 1. Act 2 isn’t as pretty: we took all the good God had to offer and said, “uh, thanks, God, but we’ll try our own thing.”  We are still living Act 2 today, but we’ve also moved through Acts 3 and 4. Act 3 is Israel.  God’s response to Act 2 is to raise up a people – first in Abraham, then in his family, then, of course, through Moses’ leadership the whole nation of people Abraham’s children had become.  In Act 3 God blesses God’s people that they, in turn, might bless the rest of the world and draw them all back to their Creator.

Act 4 is Jesus.  Through generations Israel failed to live up to it’s calling. (Dont’ be hard on Israel for this until you have succeeded in living up to God’s calling on your life!)

Act 5 is the church. Now. You and me.  This is our part of the story that begins with creation. You and I are living in this part of the story. We can help write this part of the story!  We are invited to be a part of the story that includes God’s Kingdom becoming more and more real and more and more present here and now.

If we live the story. If we accept the brand that we all share.

New Coke didn’t fit the brand, the story, that Coke had spent a century developing and telling. People didn’t buy the story that New Coke was telling.

What story is your life telling? Is your life telling the story of creation and fall?  Is your life telling the story of God working in and through people – Abrahama, the people of Israel, Jesus, and the Church, to redeem, restore, renew creation?  Is your life telling the story of the brand that God has placed in all of us – the very image of God our Creator? Is your life telling God’s story?

Some of our lives tell the story that God loves some of us, but not all of us. Some of our lives tell the story that God loves us if we do enough to earn it. Some of our lives tell the story that God used to love us, but then we sinned – we divorced, we cheated someone, we talked back to our parents, we emotionally abused our spouse, we cut people off in traffic.

But at least I haven’t robbed a bank or committed murder. So we tell the story of God loving everyone except bank robbers and murders.

 

You and I pervert God’s story in all sorts of ways – some big, some small. But if you or I tell others – or ourselves – a story that denies or takes away from God’s gracious offer of love and life, a story that ignores or denies the transformative power of God’s love, they we are perverting God’s story.

We pervert the story when we try to trick Jesus, like they did in today’s reading from Luke 20, into choosing God or community. We all tarnish the brand we all share.

New Coke offers a closing illustration of how we tarnish the brand we all share. There is pretty large consensus that the main motivation behind new Coke was the Pepsi Challenge. Beginning as far back as 1975 – 10 years before New Coke – Pepsi launched the Pepsi Challenge.  The Pepsi Challenge was a blind taste test between, basically, a swallow of pepsi and a swallow of coke. These samples were, typically, served at room temperature. (what do they think we are, eurpeans?)

Coke drinkers often picked pepsi in the Pepsi Challenge.

Which, Coca Cola argued, really proved nothing.  But by 1983 Pepsi was outselling Coke in grocery stores.

The bigger picture, of course, tells a different story.  It turns out that even if people like Pepsi, the sweeter of the two if all they have is a sip, many of them still prefer the less-sweet taste of Coke if they are drinking more than a sip.

One of our main failures as a church is that we have been offering sips of life with Christ, which we present as pretty sweet, while we’ve been ignoring, or denying, the long-term benefits of following Jesus.

And I’m not talking about going to heaven. I’m talking about the brand we all share – learning to live with the constant reminder of who this God is who made us in God’s very image.

So if your version of Christianity is a sip test – take a little now and maybe a little every Sunday, then you’ve got the New Coke version. That’s a brand no one else wants to buy.

But here’s the version of Christiainity that is faithful to the brand – to God’s story of creation and redemption and healing and learning to live in the presence of God.

Everytime you see a person, remember this. Because this is the brand we all share.

And let others see this in you!