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!

What Business are we 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.

Projection Rejection

The Hatefulness of not playing favorites

I’m a terrible person.  Or so I am tempted to believe as a result of a phone conversation that ended a few minutes ago.

Of course, I can think of all kinds of reasons he was wrong, but all  of these reasons are playing less loudly right now than the reminder of his voice.

“So, you hate veterans?”  He hung up before I could answer.

Of course I don’t hate veterans!  But, while I could have shot this simple statement out before he disconnected, I didn’t even mutter these words because that wasn’t an answer to what was actually happening.

He didn’t really care if I cared about veterans.  He cared if I cared about him.  Making things even more difficult than that, the only way I could prove to him that I cared about him was if I gave him exactly what he was asking for.

He did what he was supposed to do, right?  His best play was the card he had that could most likely win; his best card was the “veteran” card. He had already played the “my grandfather was a pastor” card, and that hadn’t worked.

In that moment, he wanted me to play favorites. More accurately, he was hoping I would both play favorites and that he, in one category or another he had presented to me, was in my list of favorites.

At this point it would be easiest for me to call up the “God is no respecter of persons,” which is how the King James version translated it.  The Common English Bible renders it “God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.” (Acts 10:34)

That’s where most of us go to fight playing favorites. There are plenty of other places in the scripture we could go, if we wanted to. Matthew 19:24 and Matthew 25:31-46 come to mind quickly.

So was I playing favorites by choosing that verse?

Are we are always choosing to play favorites, one way or another? Is it really a matter of being honest with ourselves and with others about how we choose favorites?

I am left with the story of the starfish.

White finger starfish and seashells
White finger starfish and seashells

However it is that we play favorites, may we realize that in helping one, any one, we at least offer help to that one. Whether or not we change the world in doing so, we might hope to be part of the change in that one’s world.

The Hatefulness of not playing favorites