Follow Jesus

Have you ever gotten the sense that God was looking for you?
Not that God doesn’t always know where you are. That’s a different discussion.  Sometimes it feels like, maybe, well, if it were a commercial, “God is looking for a few good men!”  If it were a poster at the post office, made, “God wants YOU to join the (heavenly) army.”
Have you ever just had this really strong feeling that God was around, and that God was interested in YOU?
Some of us get the feeling that God is looking for us whenever we do something wrong. When we give into temptation; tell that lie (however small a lie), steal the money – or time, or pirate a movie or song, or spend time on parts of the internet that mean no one any good.
But this morning I invite you to consider that God looks for you not to punish or condemn, but to love.
After all, Jesus himself said he “came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
This is the God, after all, of whom David wrote:
Lord, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
    Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
    If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
    stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
        even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
        the light will become night around me,”
    even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
        Nighttime would shine bright as day,
        because darkness is the same as light to you!
and those are just the first 10 verses of the 139th Psalm!
Maybe you have felt, at least from time to time, like God was looking for you – out of love, not out of vengeance.
Maybe you haven’t
I want to assure you with all I know and believe, that God – the God who we know best in Jesus – loves you, as the bible says, “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself,” (Jeremiah 31:3) and is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” (Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, Nehemiah, Joel)> As Exodus 34:6 specifically says, “God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness.”
This is the God who is looking for you, and who came, in Jesus, “to seek and save the lost.”
At least in some since, you’ve been found!  You are here, among others, with others – some you know, some you don’t, because, some way or another, God has found you.
God has found you! Did you even know God was looking – looking just for you?
If God has indeed found us: found you, and found me, what do we do with that?
Do we believe God has found us?  Do we follow?  Do we have to believe to follow?  Do we have to follow to believe?
Would it surprise you if I told you Jesus never walked up to anyone and said, “believe in me,” but he did – regularly, it seems – invite people to follow him.
We the people of Euless First UMC are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. Do we all believe?  Well, I’d have to say the answer to that question is probably yes and no. For each of us.
Let’s face it; even the most seemingly faithful among us do not live lives that portray Jesus every day, with every breath that passes from us. Some, I’m sure, struggle to believe some of the stories of the Bible.  Some struggle to believe that God is present every day; that God cares every day.
But I believe this is the really good news for us, and for everyone, whether or not we can believe it all, hook, line, and sinker, we can all follow.
And Jesus’ way sure seems to me to be a healthy, wise, insightful, caring, loving way to live.
Jesus’ way is exactly the way God would live if God were human.  Because Jesus is, we believe, God incarnate in humanity.
Now we are back to believing!  It’s hard to get your mind around God in humanity.  That’s a good sign.  If you and I could understand it – could really get our minds all the way around it, we really wouldn’t be talking about much of a God, would we?
We’ve all got our challenges, right?  I remind you that there is still nothing new under the sun. No matter the technology, no matter the political situation, no matter the year the calendar marks, Solomon’s wisdom stands: there is nothing new under the sun. We all have our challenges.
I mean, like at this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel. Jesus and his disciples are heading for Jerusalem.  Someone approaches and does something no one else had done.
He says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Now, Peter says something very much like this, but Peter had already been following Jesus when he said this.
This guy, in Luke 9:57, cold calls Jesus. It’s like he thinks he is making Jesus an offer he can’t refuse.
When we think we might be doing God, or Jesus, or someone else a favor, and this is what motivates us to follow Jesus, Jesus has these words for us: “Foxes have dens and birds in the sky have nests, but God incarnate in humanity has no place to lay his head.”
Jesus never promised you a rose garden; much less a McMansion or a pension, or even a lazyboy.
Following Jesus is hard, challenging stuff; but it is more rewarding than anything else you’ll ever try. And I don’t just mean eternal rewards.  I specifically and especially do not mean merely “getting to go to heaven when you die.”
Christians: we have got to stop trying to sell Christianity as a way out of this life and into a heavenly afterlife.  We lose people when we do so. Some of the ones we lose are among us: there are people among us who are long-time followers of Jesus who still worry day to day whether or not they’ve done enough, or done good enough, to “get to go to heaven when they die.”
Jesus is NOT about you or me doing ENOUGH to get to go to heaven when we do. Jesus is ALL about you and me following him here and now; and experience what Jesus called eternal life – knowing God – here and now.
Let me add, parenthetically, that if there is anything about Christianity that has stood the test of time it is this: Jesus came to take from our shoulders the weight of feeling like we have to “earn” eternal life or heaven.
So, I don’t know if you got your sense that you have to earn it from overbearing parents or just from capitalist dogma. I don’t know if your earliest, deepest-buried memories of getting love from your parents depended upon your crying loud enough to be heard or looking sorry enough to be forgiven, but our God isn’t like that.  I don’t know if you have read a market-economy understanding onto salvation, but the salvation God offers cannot be bought – or sold – and is not subject to the law of supply and demand. Rather, God’s love and grace and offer of salvation is there, available for any who would come and follow: Paul wrote it this way in Romans 5:
6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people.7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.
It is not on you to earn it, to deserve it, to keep up a certain level of behavior to acquire or hold what God offers in Jesus.  It is on you to follow.
So, this first man offers to follow Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t turn him away, but challenges him that it won’t be easy and the rewards offered might not be those he is looking for.
Then, immediately, Luke takes us to door #2.  Behind door #2 is a man to whom Jesus extends the usual, “follow me.”
This man had other ideas. His plate was full and he had many other things to do.  Could following Jesus fit well within his already established list of priorities?  He made it about family – “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” – God cares about family, right?
Well, yes. God cares about family, but Jesus’ reply was “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”
By law, family was responsible for proper, respectful burial of family. Does the law stand in the way of following Jesus?
When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” throwing the law back at Jesus will hardly win the argument. When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” whatever reason or excuse that comes to mind, remember this: Jesus, God incarnate as a human is calling, and God is calling now. Everything else – EVERYTHING ELSE – moves down a level on the priority chart.
Then, door #3. The only other person in the gospels to cold-call Jesus: “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”
So, uh, Jesus, can we talk about this later? I’m kinda busy right now.
You may be too busy to follow Jesus.  But consider this: the One who made you, who “created your innermost parts; who knit you together while you were still in your mother’s womb;” The One by whom you were “marvelously set apart, or, as an older translation put it, “fearfully and wonderfully made; the One who formed you from dust and breathed life into you; that One is calling, “follow me.”
If Jesus is calling, and you can hear it, then now is the time to follow.
Some, having believed, follow. Some, having begun to follow, find they have come to believe.
I think marriage is a good metaphor for it, and one that scripture uses throughout.
Did you really know what you were doing when you got married?
Thinking you could know someone well enough to make a fully informed decision on marriage is like waiting to have kids “till you’ve got enough money.”  There is NOT enough money to raise kids. And there isn’t knowing someone well enough to make a fully informed decision.
This is because the kind of love that marriage calls for is the kind of love that is at least as much of the will as of the mind.  It isn’t just about the dates or the data but the determination.
You don’t know someone well enough to marry them. You don’t love someone enough to marry them. You decide to marry them based on what you know, the love you feel, and your willingness to make a commitment.
Because you never really know what you’re doing when you get married.  You not only don’t know your partner well enough; you don’t know yourself well enough!  Let’s face it; what 20 year old, or 30 year old, or 50 year old knows himself or herself well enough to make a commitment forever?
You don’t know what tomorrow holds, let alone 10 or 30 or 60 years from now.
But you step in and you step up and you walk together. You follow the paths before you by parents, grandparents, and friends – by people who have walked the path of marriage before you.
Sometimes this works better than others.  We learn along the way when to follow whom.
Jesus invites you to follow, and it is much like this, except you can ALWAYS count on Jesus to be worth following.
We say that we are “trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday,” and we mean it.  If we aren’t following better, then, we have to admit, we aren’t really following.  Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus.  This is the most beautiful part of it! Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus.
I also think that part of following Jesus is inviting others to follow – follow Jesus, and follow you.  After all, if you are following Jesus, and invite someone to follow you, you are inviting them to follow Jesus.  We are tempted to say, “Don’t follow me, follow Jesus,” but this implies, and is too often lived out, as saying we aren’t really following Jesus.
Next Sunday I want to talk more about the directions I think our following Jesus together are taking us.  Many of you have been part of this conversation for quite some time, but not everyone has.  This is exciting stuff!  We are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday, and, as Jesus promised in John 15, it has been bearing fruit.
So, in closing, I want to invite you to follow Jesus.  Jesus is calling you.  Whatever else is going on around you, whatever other noise is in your ears or in your head, if you are here, or if you can hear this, Jesus is saying, “follow me,” inviting you to follow him.
Will you listen?  Will you respond?  Will you accept Jesus’ invitation?

Follow Jesus

I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!

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

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

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

But I’ve recently considered another possibility.

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

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

(I bet I am not the only one.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!

Pop Culture Truth

We started a new sermon series at Euless First United Methodist Church yesterday.  Here is the transcript for my sermon titled “Pop Culture Truth” delivered Sunday, May 31, 2015.


Popculture2015summerbanner

Blame it on a shark.  Not the shark that Fonzie jumped on September 20, 1977.  Blame the shark that hit the theaters 40 years ago next month – June 20, 1975, to be exact Jaws.

Jaws created the Summer Blockbuster.  Before Jaws scared people off the beach and into theaters, June, July, and August were the low season for the film industry.  Drive in theaters were most of the summer movie business, and by the mid 1970s, they were waning.

How many of you have been to a drive-in movie?

Now, pop culture didn’t start with Jaws, or drive-in movies.  Some allege that William Shakespeare started pop culture.  Pop is, of course, short for popular, and Shakespeare’s plays brought new worlds of experience and ideas and ways of thinking to all in attendance.

Pop culture got a big boost from the Industrial Revolution.  Factory workers worked long hours, to be sure, but not the same long hours, and rarely 7 days a week, that farm families had been used to.  Less work time meant “more” – which means simply “some” leisure time.

Leisure time coupled with living in cities and towns – among other people – meant pop culture.

Still, for years, pop culture was something one could take or leave, I suppose.

Today, one has to hide to evade pop culture.

I don’t want to say pop culture is on the attack, but sometimes it feels like it.

Pop culture once meant music – written music came from the Renaissance  and stage performances.  For the lives of everyone here, it has been music and theater and books and magazines. And radio.

Some of you remember sitting around the radio in the evening for a radio “show.”  Some of you remember getting your first television, then your first color television, etc.

Some of you don’t have much use for television.  You don’t expect a screen – outside a movie theater – to be larger than your laptop or your phone.

I’ve got one daughter – 26 – from the generation we used to joke “If you can’t program your VCR, get your kid to do it for you!” and I’ve got two kids – 3 and 5 – who will grow up barely knowing what a VCR is (or was).

I used to carry a cassette tape or 2 or 3 in the car, varying my mix tapes by mood or season.

Then I got this nice little case for cds.

Now I own about 5000 songs. 400 of them, along with, 80 books, a dozen or so movies on this (pull out phone) and access to uncountable numbers of songs, movies, books, whatever, on this with a decent connection.

It’s getting harder and harder to hide from pop culture.

I invite you to wonder with me for at least the next 6 weeks, whether or not we ought to hide from pop culture.

The church has put varying amounts of energy, throughout the centuries, into avoiding, or escaping, or eliminating pop culture.

It’s time to stop. I believe it is time to engage pop culture rather than run or hide from it, and certainly rather than trying to stamp it out or just start our own parallel version of everything.

Stamping a stylized cross on a shirt doesn’t make it a Christian shirt. Choosing music based on “Jesus per minute” is not, in fact, a credible way to judge whether music is good or not.

I believe we ought to engage Pop Culture for at least 2 reasons.  These 2 reasons follow from our starting point, which is that we are “trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday.” I believe following Jesus means – requires – these 2 things:

  1. becoming the people God created us to be – by the transformation that comes from discipleship and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit
  2. being a blessing to the world around us – because God loves everyone and wants everyone to know redemption and healing are available in Jesus.

We are created in God’s image for fellowship with God and to partner with God in care for creation.  And, we are blessed (by God) so that we might be a blessing to others!

For these reasons, we engage Pop Culture! Now, I don’t mean that you need to be listening to the Billboard Top 40 or watch whatever the Nielsen Ratings say to watch. You do not have to live according to what’s trending on Twitter to be faithful to Jesus.

Pretending none of those technologies exist or favoring one over the others won’t satisfy, either.

But let me make this point clear: When I say we ought to engage pop culture, I do not mean we must immerse ourselves in it. Have you seen some of the stuff that’s available these days?

In fact, I wonder if some of the ways Pop Culture has sunk – why you can’t stand to watch primetime TV today, is, to an extent, because Christians – and others with standards – have given up and walked away.So: I say we must engage pop culture, but not necessarily immerse ourselves in it.  When we engage it, we develop the ability to look at it critically so as to identify the good as well as the bad.  And not all pop culture is for everyone; just like not all types of food is for everyone.

I fully intend never to read Fifty Shades of Gray OR anything in the Left Behind series. But I want to engage the cultures from which they arise in ways that welcome critical discussions of why I won’t read either one.

Perhaps the first step is to admit that we are cultural beings.  Culture is “what human beings make of the world.” Culture is both the things we make and the meaning we make of things.

To have culture, to experience culture, to live in culture, is to be human.  To navigate as God’s people in culture: well, that’s following Jesus better today than yesterday.

So, where do we start?

Let’s start here: I believe that culture and pop culture are about truth.  Culture – what we make of the world, flows out of our efforts to find, to reach, to express, truth.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Well. There you go. Culture is about truth, and Jesus IS the truth.  That was simple. Or maybe it wasn’t.

See; culture is what we humans make of the world.  Culture is, then, our attempts, our efforts, our expressions of truth as we know it, see it, understand it, experience it.

And truth can be a mighty difficult thing to express, grasp, understand. And that’s small “t” truth. I think Jesus is claiming to be capital “T” truth.

In fact, Jesus’ statement in John 14 recognizes the elusive, hard-to-grasp nature of Truth.

There seem to be 2 ways of dealing with truth today. To over-simplify, we’ll call these 2 Absolutist and Relativist.

Here is the Absolutist: Some among us lament the days that our society was run according to “big T Truth.” Others recognize that those days were really as full of power struggles and hypocrisy as today.

Here is the Relativist: Some among us have accepted that everyone has their own truth and we should all be free to just live our own personal truth as long as it doesn’t infringe upon someone else’s personal truth.

Neither of these fit well with Jesus’ claim to be the Truth.

Both of them, the absolutist and the relativist, are left playing the role of Pilate: asking Jesus: “what is truth?”

When confronted with the truth, we are all Pilate; we are all Lt. Daniel Kaffee. Don’t remember who Daniel Kaffee is? How about Tom Cruise’s character in “A Few Good Men”?  Still don’t remember? That’s right: We can’t handle the truth!

I absolutely believe that we cannot – none of us – handle the truth. I completely, with all my heart and all my mind believe that we cannot handle the truth.

But we are here worshipping God together for the way the Truth has handled us and the way the Truth is handling us.

You see, our God is God – we shall have no other gods before Him. Our God is Lord, “King of the Universe!” and all truth – ALL TRUTH belongs to God.  All truth is God’s truth.

Whether or not it comes in the form of Christian art or fits within Christian society or expectations, all truth is God’s truth. And as God’s prevenient grace reminds us that grace is not dependent upon us, but rather preceeds us, so with truth. You and I do well to take truth to people who do not know Jesus beacuse Jesus is the truth.  But we ought not be so arrogant as to expect that the truth of God (which is all truth) has not gotten there before us.

If culture is what we human beings make of the world – things we make and meanings we give to things, and culture is about the pursuit of and expression of truth, and I think it is, we followers of Jesus owe it to the world to be mixing it up with others – looking for, asking, seeking, knocking, to find the truth wherever and however it might present itself.

If you want a nice, clean, simple, straightforward truth, you might have confused matters. Jesus is truth.

Can you describe someone you know, anyone you know, in a nice, clean, simple, straightforward way?

Tell me all about your mom in 150 words or less.  Explain any one of your children to me in 3 or 4 sentences.

No.  You can’t do it.  You don’t even know anyone so well that you could completely capture their identity in words, phrases, paragraphs, or books.

How much less could the Son of Man, the Savior of the world, the Incarnate Son of God, be captured in, limited to, a few words or verses?

Jesus is the truth, and we follow Jesus! And we are trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday. We are followign the truth wherever it takes us and wherever we find it, because all truth is God’s truth!

Truth is NOT sterile, dictated, distant.  Truth is up close and personal; gritty, sometimes dirty, slippery, hard to understand. And Jesus is Truth. And we are following Jesus.

In the midst of a world filled with people who are trying to find, to express, to grasp, to understand, to explain the truth, we are following the One who is the truth!

Here’s a really beautiful thing about Jesus and pop culture.  If pop culture is about people seeking to express, experience, grasp, describe, approach, truth – and I believe it is – you and I MUST be in it, near it, part of it.

Or, at least, not be hiding from it or running from it or condemning it out of hand.

Because all truth is God’s truth, Jesus is the truth, and we are following Jesus.

Pop Culture Truth