Pop Culture Finale: Back to the Future!

Here is number 6 in a 6 part series on Pop Culture.  Sunday was titled “Lead, Follow, or…”  In honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of Back to the Future, I’m re-titling this.


I don’t know about you, but along about this time of year, I enjoy thinking of cooler weather. “Christmas in July” is a thing, isn’t it?

One of my fond memories of Christmas as a child was the spate of tv specials. You remember them, don’t you?  The claymation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the “Peanuts’ Christmas,” and “Frosty the Snowman” where Burl Ives voiced the narration?

I was at a youth bible study on a Wednesday night almost 15 years ago.  It was early December, and someone brought up one of those shows.  I think maybe Rudolph.  Anyway, this young person had rented Rudolph from the local video store and was going to watch it right after we were through.

Which story made me wax nostalgic for my childhood.  “I remember watching that as a little kid,” I said. “Only back then, it was on one night in December, and if you weren’t home, in front of the tv, you missed it.”

I saw this strange look on the face of one of the youth.  “What is it?” I asked.

“What… did Blockbuster do back then?”

Instantly, I got this picture in my mind of hundreds of Blockbuster stores sitting empty all across the country in the 60’s and 70’s waiting for the invention and mass-production of video recording and marketing.

Of course, hundreds of Blockbusters was an understatement. At their peak, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees.

And Liam and Eliza, or anyone under 15, will likely never know what they were.

It is interesting to me that the shows last (well, some of them), but the way we watch them, or the way we get access to them to watch them changes.

The 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is not currently available on Netflix, by the way, but it is available for purchase to stream or as a dvd on amazon, google play, and maybe itunes.

The better stories last, but the way we access them and take them in changes.

I wonder what truth there is in that statement about the stories you and I know as scripture.

It used to be, and by “used to be” I mean way back in 2012, most of the people in most of our adult Sunday School classes carried a bible, a paper, printed and bound bible with them, or at least picked one up if they wanted to find a scripture or if it was their turn to read aloud.

Now, more often than not, each person has their smartphone or tablet open, youversion or bible gateway app going, and can read from any of 80 or so translations.

The better stories last, but the way we access them and take them in changes.

So, this week, our final week with Pop Culture – if there really can be such a thing as  final week with Pop Culture – we want to look at the vicious cycle or feedback loop that we all have with Pop Culture.

Like it or not, Pop Culture drives our society, to some degree. Many people around us are strongly influenced by pop culture. Because our task is to make disciples – followers of Jesus – of those around us, we cannot ignore Pop Culture.

We have to, we are called to, engage pop culture in whatever ways we can to make disciples of Jesus.

Does it feel sometimes like Pop Culture has run off and left you?

Does it feel sometimes, like you want to run off and leave Pop Culture?

That’s the really insidious thing about Pop Culture: you can only get so far away from it.

Eminem tried to get away from it.  In his early music, he railed against the music industry.  The music industry, it should be said, has hurt a lot of musicians in the name of profit.

Wonder why Boston quit recording for several years?  Wonder why Prince changed his name to this  ?  Because, at least in part, the music industry can be very hard on musicians.

So Eminem fought the power!  He still became very popular – popular enough to be invited to sing at the Grammies – with Elton John!  Was anyone really surprised that at the end of his song he raised both hands, flipping off the music industry that had played a role in making him a global star?

What kind of relationship do you have with Pop Culture?

It’s complicated.

Everyone’s relationship with Pop Culture is complicated.

So what are we do to?  Does Pop Culture lead, follow, or get out of the way?

Yes and no.  In some ways it leads – styles and trends and tastes and marketing draw us all in certain directions. Disagree?  Well, as I don’t see anyone in a leisure suit or a hoop skirt this morning, I’m going to assume we all get dragged along, and this isn’t all bad.

But in setting trends and styles, there’s this cyclical thing.  In the 70s, Happy Days brought back some of the style of the 50s.  In the late 90s, That 70s Show brought back the 70s.

Things go, and things come back. A little different next time, but there’s this spiraling process.

So, again, what are we, as followers of Jesus to do?  While we are engaging Pop Culture and seeking to be disciples and make disciples, how do we grasp all of this together.

First, we learn something from the lessons of God’s people in the scriptures.

Take today’s reading from Judges, for instance. I want to focus on verse 10, but first, a recap.  Joshua had led God’s people into the Promised Land.  They had taken possession by God’s mighty hand, and now they were settling in and enjoying the land God had given them. So what happened?

Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel

“Another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

We see this pattern throughout the life of Israel: you’ll have a great judge and the people excel, then, that judge dies and the people fall into evil practices and worship of false gods. You’ll have one King that recognizes God, and the next “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

In fact, this phrase, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” appears 17 times just in 2 Kings!

A new generation comes along and does what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”

Some of you might be thinking, today, “yeah, that sounds about right.”

But here’s the deal: whatever the new generation comes up with, the older generation cannot simply wash their collective hands!

We, the previous generation, are at least partly culpable for ANYTHING we think is wrong with the next generation.

We need to own this folks: no generation grows up or comes of age in a vacuum!

We, like the God’s people throughout the Old Testament, too often fail to connect across generational lines in meaningful ways.

And, folks, those of us over 50 don’t get to decide what is meaningful to the younger among us.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

We do get to influence the next generation. If we are careful, we may even get to influence them in ways they appreciate, and find meaningful and important.

The landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, authored by Christian Smith and interpreted in really helpful ways by Kenda Creasy Dean, offer us hope.

Here is how Dr. Dean, on the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary and a United Methodist Elder, suggests we can positively influence the next generation for the Kingdom of God:

Let them catch you practicing your faith.

I don’t mean tell them to read their bible and pray. I don’t even mean telling them how much you read your bible and pray. I mean let them catch you – firsthand – reading your bible and praying!

Do your kids know you pray for them, other than your telling them you pray for them?

Do you and I spend as much time in the Bible as we say other people, especially those young people should spend in the Bible?

For your children to catch you practicing your faith, of course, you will have to practice your faith.

Maybe some of you can remember how your parents and or grandparents practiced their faith. Not how they lamented about the problems your generation was, but how you saw them – caught them- following Jesus.

Here is a proven truth that we need to remind ourselves occasionally: the BEST predictor for whether or not a young person will grow up to be an active member of a church is whether or or not their parents were active members of a church. Not programs, not paid staff, but the participation of the parents.

Which reminds me of the Harry Chapin classic, “The Cat’s in the Cradle,”?  Yeah, it speaks a lot of truth. Here is the last part of the song:

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said I’d love to dad, if I could find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

They will tend to grow up like us. Like we ARE more than like we tell them we are.

Now, to be fair, this still isn’t a perfect thing.  There are people who model church participation and don’t have their kids follow suit.

I have an adult child who, as far as I know, has nothing to do with any church. We could go into the reasons – all of which I’ve made up in my head because she hasn’t actually given me any reasons – but the reasons are not important right now.

What is important is that you and I are here, that we are trying to follow Jesus, and that, from today forward, we have to be about making disciples. One of the most important things to making disciples – people who follow us as we follow Jesus – is to be the kind of people someone might actually want to follow.

I haven’t always been.  You haven’t always been.  There. We are even, let’s move forward.

The gospel reading for this morning has got to be a lament by Jesus.  He says:

“To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

My short summary is this: You can’t win!  John presented living within God’s will one way, Jesus another.  They appeared to be categorical opposites.

John the Baptist, about whom Jesus had just said earlier in the chapter, “no one greater had ever been born,” and Jesus couldn’t prove to everyone that following them was following the will of God.

You and I cannot either. So, what are we to do? “Wisdom is proved right by her works.” What is wisdom? There’s a whole lot about that in here (hold up a tablet). I mean, in here (hold up an actual bible).   I hope you get the idea. Remember: The better stories last, but the way we access them and take them in changes.

Seek wisdom. Follow Jesus and you will find yourself seeking wisdom.

So, there were once 9,000 Blockbuster stores. There are now maybe 50 left, the closest to us being in Pleasanton, Tx, about 30 minutes south of San Antonio.

There are  43,000 of these kiosks at 34,000 locations around the country. More than 60 million people around the world subscribe to Netflix.

People still want the product, they have just found different ways to access it.

People still want God’s love and forgiveness, they are looking for different ways to access it.

I am pretty sure that the next generation wants reconciliation with their creator, and forgiveness and the real possibility of a life of hope as much as the last generation.

It is on us to find ways to help them access it.

Pop Culture Finale: Back to the Future!

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!

Truth in Advertising

BKyesandnoI know the picture to the left doesn’t look like me, but it is.
It is probably you, too.

The other day I took my kids to the BK that across the street from our church.  The kids like the playground there.

I got the best customer service I’ve ever received in that restaurant.  On my overall scale of fast-food expectation, the service was at least an 8 of 10.

Except for this: he suggested I try the new pulled pork sandwich.  One of the images above is from the menu board. The other is the actual sandwich I was served.

Can you guess which is which?

I wasn’t particularly happy. No amount of friendly service would have made up for the disappointment of barely being able to see the pork under the onions and pickles.  I think it tasted ok, but mostly I tasted bread. I expected, hoped for, the taste of pulled pork.

I know that in fast food in particular each menu item is very specifically defined for the kitchen staff.  There is a precise amount of each item for each product.  There is no room for creativity or interpretation on the part of the kitchen staff.

I felt pretty sure I hadn’t been shorted pork – at least not by the people working there. No, I had been shorted by the BK Corporation.

I shared my disappointment with the manager, who shared my sense of loss.

I didn’t think it fair to advertise that particular picture of the sandwich when the actual sandwich was so miserable and slight by comparison.

I never expect the food I actually receive in a restaurant to look as attractive as the image on the menu. I know better.  This seemed too much of a stretch for credibility, though. And it still does.

At the same time, I began to wonder how fair this serves as a metaphor for the way we live in public.

Too many of us present a version of ourselves to everyone around us that is not at all a reasonable facsimile of who we really are. Beyond “fake it till you make it,” too many of us live a facade and have for years.

How do you compare with the version of you your friends know?  with the social media version of you?  with the church version of you?  with the version of you your family knows?

May we all, by the grace of God, move our lives in the direction of a little more truth in advertising.

Who knows, maybe Burger King will follow suit!

Truth in Advertising

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



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!

Thank you, Robin Williams!

20140721_100448This won’t be the blog from which you learn that Robin Williams has died.

This may or may not be a blog on which you read anything you haven’t already read somewhere else. Or everywhere else.

As I was in a Finance Committee meeting last night when I got the news.  Shocking as it was, this news didn’t justify excusing myself from a meeting to rush something out into the blogosphere.

Now that you have read everything else about William’s life and death; now that you’ve searched for, found, and shared your own collections of quotes and clips, I offer you this.

Everyone wants a new angle.  Everyone wants to say or write or share the perfectly unique perspective on the fact that Robin Williams’ life and work.

I am not alone in this.

I am, however, one who has reminded a few hundred people that “there is nothing new under the sun” rather frequently here recently.

Yet I want, I almost crave to say something different.  I want – do I need? – to share something you hadn’t already thought of?

All these thoughts marinated in me last night and again this morning.  As I sat down with the intent to blog, I realized something about all the reflection – reflection about myself, and Robin Williams, and life and depression and death and shared experience.

What I realized is this: part of the reason news of Williams’ death has so shaken so many of us is exactly because he managed – for over thirty years – to say and do things that struck us as both unique and new, but also as familiar and comfortable.  He made us laugh to the point of drooling and snorting. He brought us to tears with moving moments of humanity.

Did Robin Williams disprove that there is nothing new under the sun?  No, but I think he drew us together in ways and with methods that were, at least, out of the norm.

So, instead of trying to share something about Robin Williams’ life that is new, unique, or out of the norm, I’ll just share with you my thanks for his ability to draw us past the weight of our lives into the experience of joy and sadness that connected and connects us with each other.

And… about that…

No doubt some of his comedic genius and some of the source from which he was able to draw his acting ability came from the same deep well as the depression and addiction issues.  He struggled with and against these, I suppose, all his life.  He ultimately fell victim to them.

His death saddens us both because we won’t have another Robin Williams movie or series or stand up routine, and because we don’t want lives to be taken from us by such insidious means.

Death touches us all – this time a single death has touched a great many people.

Yet this singular death of an individual suffering from – perhaps tortured by – demons of depression and addiction serves us.  It reminds us that we are people who, to a variety of degrees, know the power of depression and addiction.  Some of us know it from the inside.  Some only from the outside.

It is my prayer for you today, in memory of Robin Williams, that you will check in with those close enough to you for you to know the power of depression and addiction in their lives.  Let them know they are not alone.  May doing so remind you that you, too, are not alone.

Thank you, Robin Williams!

Thank you, Robin Williams!