Yes, Caesar, whatever you say, Caesar

veterans-dayWithin limits, of course.

If you know me at all, you can imagine how confused I was to hear this yesterday at our church’s Veteran’s Day Luncheon:

Note the order here: the nation was telling the churches to celebrate this day.

I reacted, but controlled it. Someone else had the floor. This gave me time to figure my response.

The State doesn’t tell the church what to do!  How dare they? Who do they think they are. The wheels of thought spun inside me, measured by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people, many of whom had served in war, and at least some of whom don’t have exactly the same ecclesiology I do.

As the speaker concluded, she shared that this description of the history of Veteran’s Day came from The United Methodist Church.

My thoughts took an abrupt turn, but not full 180.

Promoting and enduring peace and honoring those who offered themselves to the cause of freedom and justice were certainly worthy values that I could encourage, even lead, my church to uphold.

I’m still nonconstantinian, but I have realized that maybe there is more left to render to Caesar than I thought before yesterday.

My recent brush with the Law

 

You know that sinking feeling you get when you look in your rear-view mirror and see a police car with lights flashing?  And you heard the siren before you saw it?  And then the next feeling is supposed to be relief because you pull to the side and the police car zooms on past?

Well, I got the first of those feelings without the second a couple of weeks ago, when I got my first speeding ticket in quite a few years.

No doubt I was guilty. 30 in a 20. I hadn’t noticed the change, thought I was keeping up with traffic; you know the drill.

So I pulled over, put the car in Park, put my hands on the steering wheel, and waited.

We had a fine conversation. I kept hoping that I might be let off with a warning. Might have, except it was in a school zone.  I guess I want no tolerance in a school zone. Maybe even more than I want a citation.

I can’t say I have been stopped a lot of times.  I also can’t say that I have always thought that stopping me and writing me a citation was really the best thing to do.  So, I rolled a stop sign, but there was NO ONE else on the road! Oh, yeah, except that parked police car down the street….

For all the times I’ve been stopped, maybe ten over the 35+ years I have been driving, I have always been treated well.

Judging from ONLY my own experience, I cannot make any sense of the challenges our society currently faces over policing.

On the other hand, there are too many stories, and too many incidents, for me to believe that there is not a problem.

But I am absolutely convinced of this: the problem is not the police, and the problem is not one particular race or class of people. The problem is us; the problem is in and with all of us, and until we can all admit that, I do not expect the problem will get any better.

And I don’t know anyone who wants things to keep going like they are. I don’t believe there is anyone who wants things to keep going like they are. But when, and how, are we going to get past the fear and hashtags that frame all of this?

Who is willing to stop vilifying the other, WHOEVER the “other” might be?

I am going to try. Wouldn’t you agree it is worth a try?

If it is worth a try, would you also agree that it has to start with ME trying, and YOU trying, not waiting around for THEM to try?

That’s from my recent brush with the Law. May your next brush with the law be at least as smooth as mine.

 

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!

 

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?

What Business are we in?

This is sermon 2 in the Branded series at Euless First United Methodist Church.

Retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon once told this story about the merging of two Annual Conferences in South Carolina.  These were, by the way, not geographic areas being merged, but, rather, racially segregated conferences.

However antiquated it might sound, Methodism in the South was not much faster than the surrounding culture to bridge racial divides.  But it did happen, and it happened several years ago now.  Willimon’s story began with the committee charged with organizing the first united gathering for these two conferences.

I imagine the meeting started slowly, quietly, intensely.  I suppose everyone at the table (I assume they met around a table) was eager for this merger to work, yet uncertain about the future. Cautious, yet hopeful. “We’ve never worked this closely with ‘them’ before,” both teams likely felt, but left unsaid.

So, one of the white men began with a goodwill gesture, inviting any of the black men to share, “Would you tell us how you all have organized your annual conference meeting?”

“Surely,” one of them replied.  “We would begin with a rousing opening worship service on Sunday evening. Then, Monday morning, we would start the day early with a devotional time and then follow with a worship service celebrating what God had done in the past year. By the time that finished, we would receive an address from the Bishop, then adjourn for lunch. Following lunch we would gather again for a worship service….”

At this point he was interrupted, respectfully, by one of the white men, “But did you ever get around to the business of the annual conference?”

“What IS the business of the Annual Conference?” came back a question that we ought all take to heart, especially when we get heady about what great things we are going to plan or organize or do for God.

What IS the business of Euless First United Methodist Church?  What business are we in?

Last week we focused on The Brand We All Share.weekone This brand we all share is the story of God’s love and faithfulness and it we are reminded of it every time we see a human – another person, or ourselves in a mirror, because we are all created in God’s image. Branding, you’ll remember, is not an image or a tune, but a story evoked by an image, song, video, etc.

So, as God’s people, it behooves us to line our lives up with the story that God is telling. God’s story is, briefly:

Act 1: creation – good and very good!

Act 2: sin, brokenness and estrangement in relationships: between people, and between people and God

Act 3: Israel – God raises up a people to represent God, to bless others and to draw them away from their sin, brokenness and estrangement and toward the God who created them

Act 4: Jesus – God’s people having failed to faithfully live in covenant with God to bless others and draw them to God, Jesus becomes the faithful human in and through whom all are offered healing and hope from their sin, brokenness and estrangement from God and each other.

Act 5: Church – Having vanquished sin and death through crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus calls forth a Church, a “called-out people” whom God intends to embody the Kingdom of God already present on earth, here and now.

That is God’s story for us, for all of us; for all of creation.

We are, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, we are here to be ambassadors for Jesus; God is negotiating through us for the lives of everyone!

Even clearer than that, this morning’s gospel reading seems as clear as the air in this room: we are to “go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”

So, with all that in mind, I ask today, What business are we in?

The answer must not be as easy as “making disciples and serving as ambassadors for Jesus.”

What business are we in? Filling the sanctuary?  Training children?

Converting people? Saving souls? Accumulating Jesus points? Earning our way into heaven? Building church facilities with snack bars, bowling alleys and shooting ranges so the saved will no longer have to mix with the great unwashed masses?

The United Methodist Church’s mission statement is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This is our business.  Anything that detracts from making disciples is extra. Anything that is not part of making disciples ought to be very carefully considered before we do it as a church.

Does operating a food pantry make disciples of Jesus Christ?  Maybe, but not necessarily.

Does going to a Texas Rangers game together after worship make disciples? Maybe, not automatically.

Does having meetings every week make disciples of Jesus? Again, maybe. But 2 hours into a 60 minute meeting I have my suspicions.

Does painting the exterior trim on the sanctuary (it needs it badly, by the way) make disciples of Jesus?  Not necessarily – plenty of churches with well maintained facilities close every year.

So, if it is so easy to answer the question, “What business are we in?” why are we so easily distracted and why do we so easily and often fail to keep the main thing the main thing.

The business we are in is making disciples for Jesus Christ. Anything that detracts from that must be open for reconsideration.

Everything thing that detracts from making disciples for Jesus Christ can potentially keep us from making disciples for Jesus Christ.

In fact, it is even more challenging that that: getting our focus off of the complexity of what it means to make disciples is, I would argue, our greatest challenge.

To explain what I mean, I’d like to tell you a story.  It’s a story of wolves and Yellowstone National Park.

For the safety of people and especially of other animals such as deer and elk, wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone National Park in the 1920’s.

In 1974 the grey wolf was included on the list of endangered animals in The Endangered Species Act. A pack of 8 were brought in from Canada and reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.

Whereas it had been thought that eliminating wolves would have improved life for the remaining species (especially elk), we have learned something, well, amazing.

Yes, the number of elk has decreased drastically.  Elk reached a peak of about 11,000. Now 11,000 elk was too many for the land.  Much of the grassland was overgrazed.  Overgrazing led to erosion.

Re-enter the wolf. Elk numbers are down, but grasslands quickly do better.  Wolves ate coyotes, so other species that thrive in grasslands that had been coyote food – rabbits and mice – began to flourish.  More rabbits and mice meant more foxes and hawks and badgers and weasels. More ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the wolves’ leftovers.  Bears fed on these leftovers, too, as well as on the increased production of berries, since the elk population was down.

The elk had not only over grazed grasses in meadows, but also seedling aspen and cottonwood.  The reintroduction of wolves actually aided in forest growth – some areas saw the height and thickness of trees quintuple in a decade.  More trees meant more beavers, and beavers, like wolves, provide ecosystem boosts to many other animals – muskrats, otters, and ducks and fish.

But this went beyond just other living things.  The very health of the rivers in the area was improved. Yes. Wolves saved rivers.  Well, not exactly saved rivers.  But, the reintroduction of wolves brought back balance to the ecosystem that strengthened the grasslands which meant less erosion which meant healthy, stronger, cleaner rivers.

One aspect of the ecosystem was eliminated, and the entire system was thrown out of balance. Reintroduce that one element, in this case, wolves, and over the space of 20 years, with careful management, of course, the system is restored to balance and the entire system flourishes.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, your life is an ecosystem.  This is as true spiritually as it is biologically.

Your body couldn’t survive long, and life would be horrific to live, were it not for the millions of bacteria and other micro-flora that live off of your body – both all over your skin, and especially inside your digestive system.

This is why healthcare is so challenging: if it were ever so simple as “you need more calcium or potassium or fiber,” how easy life would be!

How do you lose weight? Take in less calories than you burn.  But you can’t just stop eating. If you just stop eating, sure, you’ll lose weight, but your body will react and burn less calories until it finds some sort of equilibrium with the calories you are now taking in.

It is just as true for our spiritual lives as our physical or biological lives!  Sometimes the story we tell is that all you have to do to be a disciple is pray every day and read your bible every day.

Sometimes we just want people to “make a decision for Jesus,” say the “sinner’s prayer,” and then, like, “poof!” they’re a mature disciple of Jesus.

Other times we make it just about helping people – if you just feed enough poor people or give away enough of your stuff or your money, then God will write your name in the “faithful” category.

Some of us have turned the Golden Rule around – I haven’t done anything bad to anyone, and that’s enough for Jesus!

I have pastored many people from all of these and other perspectives.  There are so many ways you and I can reduce what is required to be a disciple to a list – (as short a list as possible, please!) – but they all do the same thing to the ecosystem of our lives as taking wolves out of the equation did to Yellowstone.

We need a fuller, richer version of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ!  When we begin to live this fuller, richer version of being a disciple, we find that we are not only being disciples of Jesus Christ, but that we are making disciples of Jesus Christ. And when we are making disciples of Jesus Christ, we create space for God to bring on the transformation of the world.

We are NOT in the business of transforming the world.  We are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  If we do that, God will transform the world!

I have served as pastor of many people over the years. One of the things about this work that most often breaks my heart is when someone who, by all accounts has been a faithful member of the church, expresses uncertainty about his or her relationship with God.

So, in case you are one of those persons; in case you have settled for “being a disciple” meaning you should go to church or read your bible every morning or pray every day or give money to the church and a few other good causes or go on a mission trip or collect coats for the elderly or visit the elementary school every week or prisons when you can. Maybe you’ve gotten saved seven times, baptized five, and say the sinner’s prayer every night before you got to sleep,  but you still aren’t sure you’re on God’s “approved” list.

Become a disciple. Follow Jesus. Sure, you can “make decisions for Christ,” but if you don’t change some habits and patterns of behavior, what you call a decision is lip service or pandering.

Become a disciple. Start a journey down the road with Jesus.  The gospels are a good place to start: how did Jesus interact with other people?  What kinds of words did Jesus use?  What kinds of people did Jesus hang out with?

Of course, in the gospels, you’ll find this, too: when Jesus sent his disciples off to do something, he never sent them solo.  He always sent them in at least pairs. You cannot be a disciple on your own!  You need help – help in the form of other human being who are also out to follow Jesus, to be his disciples.

We are in the business of making disciples, and we can only do this by being disciples. There are other ways we could get more people in here. There are other ways we could collect more money, and maybe even other ways we could give more money away.  But there are no other ways to be disciples of Jesus.

I close with this fabulously rich point that one of you made recently for me.  You accompanied our confirmation class to the Conference Confirmation Celebration. You choose a “breakout session” aimed at helping youth manage themselves on social media. You opened the eyes of my heart once again to the beauty of Philippians 4:8.

Now, to be fair, youth aren’t the only one challenged to behavior themselves well on social media. I’ve seen some of the stuff some of you post, and, well, we older folk have no place to stand to pontificate to adolescents about what they ought to do.

Which is the beauty of your sharing Philippians 4:8 with me. Because Philippians 4:8 just happens to be followed by Philippians 4:9 – great how it works that way, huh?  Here’s chapter 4 verse 8, shared at this breakout session as a good guiding principle for what you share on social media:

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.

How great is that!  How might our perspective, our openness to God, and our vision of the divine be increased, and how might our bitterness, our pettiness, our small-mindedness be decreased, if we focus our thoughts on “anything that is excellent, admirable, true, holy, just, pure, lovely, worthy of praise!  This isn’t just for youth; this is for anyone who would be a disciple!

Which brings me to verse 9, and the power of quoting verse 8 to a bunch of youth. Here is verse 9: Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

WHEN you are willing to say to someone, “practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us,” THEN you are a disciple, and THEN you will find you are making disciples!

And making disciples is the business we are in!

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.