Ban the Ban!

This just in: TVLand has banned Dukes of Hazard reruns!

Ok, technically, that’s just not right.  A TV channel doesn’t “ban” shows.  A TV channel chooses which shows to air and which not to air.

So, to say that TVLand has decided to pull Dukes of Hazard episodes from its arsenal would be correct.  But to say TVLand has banned Dukes of Hazard would ONLY be correct if one went on to characterize EVERY OTHER show that TVLAND doesn’t air as similarly banned.

Of course, if one is trying to rally the troops against the rising tide of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the American Public, then throwing the word “ban” in may be very helpful.

We Americans don’t like being told what to do or what not to do.

TVLand refuses to allow Americans the freedom to watch Dukes of Hazard!

Well, no, not really; TVLand has merely decided that if Americans want to watch the Dukes of Hazard, they will do it somewhere besides TVLand.

TVLand, along with a growing number of other commercial enterprises (Walmart, Sear, Ebay, Etsy, Amazon, and others), is no longer participating in selling products that feature that flag. I believe it is within their rights to so choose.

And we all knew, didn’t we, that businesses deciding to stop selling such products would lead to a run on these same products?

Yeah, that’s kind of how we are as Americans: we don’t like being told what we can and what we cannot buy.

Just don’t confuse the freedom to buy something with the ability to find someone willing to sell it.

Ban the Ban!

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

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!

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!

Come on Jesus, light my fire!

This is the second sermon in our summer series: “Pop Culture.” The audio will soon be available on our website, at which time I’ll share the link here.


Popculture2015summerbannerI want to start with a celebrity impression. Can you tell me who this is?

“You’re fired!”

I’m no Donald Trump, but I know fire when I see it.

But what does fire have to do with ending someone’s employment.  Legend has it that this term – “firing” someone started with John Henry Patterson, founder and owner of National Cash Register (or NCR).  Patterson, you’ll want to know, made Time magazine’s list of 10 worst bosses. Here’s an example: when Thomas Watson, Sr., NCR’s top Salesman, suggested to Patterson that mechanical cash reigsters would one day be replaced by electric ones, Patterson sent Watson on a sales call.  While Watson was out, Patterson had his desk hauled out into the street and set on fire. Hence, “fired.”

Don’t feel too bad for Watson, though.  He got on as General Manager with NCR’s competitor CTR – Computing -Tabulating – Recording Company.  CTR, under Watson’s leadership, later changed it’s name to IBM. You’ve heard of IBM.

Using the word “fire” in this way doesn’t have much to do with the Bible.  Other than Donald Trump, it doesn’t have much to do with Pop Culture, either.

But maybe that’s a good place to start today.

Why do so many people like to watch Donald Trump say “You’re Fired!” Let’s face it – Trump says “you’re fired” a lot more than he says “you’re hired.”

Today we look at and talk about fire – in Pop Culture and in our faith.

But first, a summary from last week’s intro to this series.

  • Culture is “what humans make of the world.” Pop Culture is what we make of the world-specifically all things “popular” -related to, about, from, entertainment and connecting people.
  • Culture, and Pop culture, are about truth or at least human attempts to find, express, experience, grasp truth.
  • All truth is God’s truth – wherever we find it, whomever it comes from.  God Himself is the author of truth – Jesus said, I am the truth – and God is such a good, loving God that God has not entirely depended upon us, his people, to spread truth.  Truth precedes us

So, now, on to Fire.

It was on fire when I lay down on it and there is smoke on the water. U2 sang of The Unforgettable Fire and Johnny Cash described love as “A Ring of Fire.”

Bruce Springsteen sang “I’m on fire” and Katness Everdeen was the “Girl on Fire.” Billy Joel promises that “we didn’t start the fire – that it was always burnin’’ since the world’s been turnin’”

What is that fire that was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’?  Could that be the fire that was burning a bush in the wilderness at Mt. Horeb, with which God got the attention of a fugitive murderer named Moses?

Could this be the same fire that John said Jesus would baptize with? Here’s Luke’s account:

The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ.  John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  (Luke 3:15-16)

Perhaps this fire is the refiner’s fire Malachi referred to in this morning’s OT reading.  A refiner’s fire heats metals from a solid to a liquid state. This makes the impurities float to the top, where they can be removed.

What is left is pure – or at least purer than before the heat was applied.

We’ve all known this kind of fire in our lives.  Sometimes the world swirls around us – and through us faster and with more confusion or damage or hurt than we think we can stand.

How long has it been since you’ve been at that place in life that you weren’t sure you would survive?  Are you there right now?

If you aren’t there right now, but you can remember having been there, you have likely been through the refiner’s fire.

This could be the fire John the Baptist was talking about.  One of the things Jesus does, that follow Jesus does, is help is see the impurities and separate them, lay them aside.

Fire refines, and purifies, but it also destroys.  There’s the lake of fire in Revelation. There’s Dante’s “Inferno” (which predates both the Towering Inferno and the Disco Inferno).

Dante’s Inferno, along with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, is where we get most of our modern imagery and expectation of hell or eternal damnation. Yes: current ideas and imagery of hell – pop culture AND the Church – come more from Dante and Milton than from the scriptures.

Which doesn’t change the fact that the bible recognizes the destructive power of fire.  Fire destroys.

But the destructive power is, I think, best seen – in pop culture and in our faith, as a reminder of the power of fire.  When harnessed, fire provides light and heat. When the power of fire is not harnessed, it destroys.

Which might tell us more truth about power than about fire; because power in any of its forms, when not harnessed, destroys.

How do you witness power around you?  How do you exercise power? When are you most challenged in trying to harness the power you have?

Which brings us back to Johnny Cash. Here’s how “The Ring of Fire” starts:

Love is a burning thing

And it makes a fiery ring.

Bound by wild desire

I fell into a ring of fire.

Like Fire, love has power.  We will spend more time on love next week – that’s the topic of next week’s message – but for now let’s connect fire and love, starting with Johnny Cash.

Love and fire connect in literature and music, culture and pop culture, because fire is a great metaphor for passion, which is one of the ways we talk about love or one of the aspects of love.

Passion heats us up.  Passion catches us on fire.  Springsteen and Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger games trilogy make so clear to us.

They remind us that we are passionate people.

Or are we?  Judging from the culture I was raised in, One might wonder if we are passionate or not. Passion was for all those other people, because passion, somehow, meant weakness.

Thankfully, not all of us are from that culture.  Take the way we worship. Many of us were raised in a culture where applause WAS NOT TO happen in worship. The concern was that the performers – or whoever received applause, would let it go to their head, feed their pride.

Some of us were raised, though, in a culture that set us free to respond, to interact.  In these cultures, applause, or shouting, or standing up and dancing, or whatever, were expressions affirming the presence and power of God.

Like so much about culture, no one of these expressions – or lack of expressions – is “right.” A seminary friend of mine was at a conference of her church – the Pentecostal Holiness church.  She tells how she and a friend were seated behind “Big Eddy.” Now, Big Eddy was often one of the first at such conferences to feel the Spirit.  This time, Big Eddy got help.  My friend and the person sitting with her stuck Big Eddy in the seat with a pin.

Big Eddy got the Spirit. Or so it seemed.

Now, before you think I am making fun of christian cultures that are livelier and more excitable than my own, I am not.

After all, I’m more of the christian culture that this story describes.  In a Sunday morning worship service, one of the congregation passed out cold. Unable to wake him up, 911 was called.  When the EMTs got there, they had removed half the congregation before actually getting to the one who had actually passed out!

Some respond to the moving of the Holy Spirit with energy and motion and noise, some with stillness and quiet.

The point is to respond to the Holy Spirit.  The point is not to suppress the Spirit or fake the Spirit.

How do you respond to the Holy Spirit?  Are you aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence here and now?  Are you paying attention to the Spirit?

Passion is about our response to the Spirit, as well as to other things. Passion calls us to DO something. This is why one way of describing what passion does within us is to say “we are moved.”  Passion doesn’t leave us where we are, or the way we are.

Another way of describing what passion does within us is to use the language of fire.

We see this, even about God, in Exodus 4:24 –  “the Lord your God is an all-consuming fire. He is a passionate God.”

Fire is powerful. Passion is powerful!  Which brings to mind that the power of love is a curious thing; it makes one man weak, and makes another man sing,” but that’s next week.

Sometimes you can see passion, feel passion, as truth.  Words and music can come from sheets of paper, or they can come from the soul – even if they’re read off sheets of paper.

Tell me which of these has passion

Pat Boone singing Tutti Frutti or Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti?

Jesus’ last week among us is often referred to simple as The Passion, or The Passion of Jesus – oh! which is close to the title of a movie, now, isn’t it?

I believe that Pop Culture engages passion, and I believe that as followers of Jesus, we are called to be passionate people – to harness the passion that God created us to have.

When we harness the passion God puts within us, people take notice. When we harness the passion God puts within us, we are more believable, more credible, more interesting.

When we harness the passion God puts within us, we are less hypocritical, less judgmental.

When we harness the passion God puts within us, we put ourselves in a place to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday.

Speaking of harnessing passion, Let me take you back to Johnny Cash.  Trent Reznor is the lead singer for Nine Inch Nails. That’s a band, if you aren’t following yet.  Reznor wrote a song, “Hurt,” for the 1994 album “The Downward Spiral.”  He was in his late 20s.

In 2002, Johnny Cash covered “Hurt.”  (“Covered” means he put out his own recording of someone else’s song.”

Hurt is about pain – in case that wasn’t obvious. It captured the mood, the languish, the passion, of pain and suffering.  If you know anything about Johnny Cash, you know he had seen a little pain and suffering in his life.

Cash’s cover of “hurt” was so good, so moving, so full of passion, that when Reznor heard it, He said this: “that’s not my song anymore.  That’s song belongs to Johnny Cash.”

There’s a kind of life that God authored that God wants you to have.  It’s called eternal life; “life lived to the fullest.” Life lived in the presence of the God who made us and who breathed life into us.

May the baptism of the Holy Spirit burn within us. May it stir the passion with each of us that, when we harness the passion that God puts within us, We may claim the life as our own that God has for us!

Come on Jesus, light my fire!

Servant Leadership

?
Servant Leadership

If it were always easy to be a leader, I suppose everyone would be a leader.

I was volunteering for Field Day at South Euless Elementary School, a school we have adopted as a church. We mentor kids, run a once-a-week after-school program, and many other things.

It has been a joy and blessing to connect with this school and to get to know students, teachers, and staff.

One of the staff is in the picture above.  Field Day was a wet, muddy affair. This has been the wettest May on record in Texas, and Field Day was just un-rainy enough to go on.

Go on, it did. Kids were running, jumping, laughing, playing in the mud; just as you would expect kids to do. Before they entered the school building, though, this staff person was hosing them down. It was hard to tell who was enjoying it more.

Now, I want you to know this particular staff member happens to be the Principal, Randy Belcher. Wearing a sport coat, khakis and dress shoes, he wasn’t dressed to be hosing down muddy kids.

But by every measure, Principal Belcher is a leader, and leaders do what needs to be done. Some leaders might delegate everything and keep themselves above the fray. In my experience, this kind of leader ends up with less people following him or her.

In other words, if I were a teacher, I would want to be a teacher serving under the leadership of a Principal who wasn’t afraid to get dirty hosing mud off of kids at Field Day.

This is the kind of leader I want to be.

This is also the kind of leader Jesus was. In fact, Jesus being the existence of God incarnate in human flesh is exactly this kind of leadership. I suppose there would have been a way for God to maintain the distance from us and lead us. But that’s not the way God chose to lead.

Thank you, Mr. Belcher, for this help in understanding leadership, and especially for help in understanding the kind of leadership God offers us in Jesus Christ.

Servant Leadership