We have just begun a new sermon series at Euless First United Methodist Church. This series was inspired by a presentation Mike Slaughter made at FUMC Hurst in February of this year.Here is the first sermon from the series, preached Sunday morning, April 17, 2016.
It all started April 23, 1985. 31 years ago next Saturday.
That’s when “new coke” was released. The Coca-Cola company chose to change the 99 year old recipe concocted by Dr. John Pemberton.
It was a disaster. Or was it?
The company promised it would keep the newer formulation. Their research had determined younger generations would like it better.
New generations didn’t. New Coke went away. Thousands of calls and letters later, Old Coke, or regular Coke, or, as you may remember it, “Coke Classic” reappeared in July.
On June 14, 1999, New Coke made Time magazine’s “100 worst ideas of the 20th century.” Glenwood Davis, marketing manager for Coca-Cola in Roanoke, Va, recalled receiving a letter from a woman who wrote:”There are only two things in my life: God and Coca-cola. Now you have taken one of those things away from me.”
That’s serious stuff.
But was it really a disaster? Coke increased sales that year by 8% – twice their target. “New Coke,” of course, gave us “Classic Coke,” or the same old coke people had been drinking for 99 years, but now, somehow, it was new again.
Jesus was, in many respects, the same old message of God’s desire to redeem creation and reconcile the world to himself, but now, in Jesus, it was somehow new again. In Jesus, God’s people were confronted with a rollout of a seemingly new product. The point was, I am convinced, to restore or renew the message God had been about since the beginning of time.
I am not saying Jesus was New Coke. I am also not saying Jesus was Coke Classic.
It’s hard for us to put such terms on Jesus; I’ll grant you that. Even “Jesus as CEO” or “Jesus as marketing guru” or “Sales Genius” catch us wrong.
But what about Jesus as shepherd? Or the master farmer, Prophet, Priest, or King? Sure, you can imagine those images “fitting” Jesus. Jesus told stories about shepherds and farmers, prophets, priests, and kings. Jesus told stories about widows and rich men and merchants, too.
Jesus told the stories he told to reach the people he was talking to. Jesus didn’t tell farmer stories and use agricultural metaphors for the Kingdom of God because farmers are closer to the earth, or because that way of life was more primitive or less advanced and therefore better or preferred by God.
Jesus taught the way he taught, and used the stories, illustrations, and metaphors he used because these were precisely the stories, illustrations, and metaphors that would reach his audience.
How is the world today the same as it was in Jesus’ day? How is it different?
You aren’t a farmer. You aren’t a shepherd. You aren’t a prophet, priest or king. Some of you are merchants.
You are a consumer. You are a shopper. This is the world we live in. I have become convinced recently that these are the kinds of stories, illustrations, and metaphors that might reach us today the way Jesus’ stories, illustrations, and metaphors reached his audience.
Hence this sermon series: Branded. For the next five weeks (today and four more Sundays), we will be looking at the truth in God’s Word generally and the life and teachings of Jesus specifically through the same lens we view all the world, all our lives through.
So, an honest reflection. I had been pastor here no more than a month when I had a conversation with another staff member. She said something buying or selling – I honestly can’t remember now. I responded with something like, “You know, as followers of Jesus, we are not just consumers!”
She might have called me “hippie.” Or socialist, or communist, I don’t know. But she did say, “You aren’t going to try to tell me Jesus doesn’t want us to be consumers, are you?”
I replied, quickly, easily, and calmly: “No; that’s not what I’m saying. But I am saying this – our most basic identity as human beings is NOT that we buy stuff or consume stuff. Our most basic identity as human beings is that we are children of God – that God created us in God’s own image for fellowship with God, to live in relationship with God, and to be stewards over God’s creation.”
We are consumers; but we are first and foremost children of God who have lost our way and wandered from our identity as God’s children.
In Jesus’ day, the people were farmers and fishermen and shepherds and merchants. But they were first and foremost children of God who had lost their way and wandered from their identity as God’s children.
So, for the next 5 weeks, I hope you’ll stick with us for Branded!
Now, back to Coke.
How did Coca-cola get to New Coke from the pinnacle they had reached in 1971? I don’t know if 1971 was a peak of sales for Coke, but their brand hit a high point.
And it happened in 1971 because this is not Coke’s brand.
This is Coke’s brand, straight outta 1971, but many of you could sing right along with it this morning: https://youtu.be/2msbfN81Gm0
I want to make sure you get this: branding isn’t the image or logo. Branding is the story that the image or logo or song or video evoke. The image exists to connect us with a story. The image doesn’t work if it doesn’t connect us with a story.
Because we are story driven. Everything about us wants to be part of a story. We will even settle for being a bit-part in a story someone else wrote rather than not being in any story at all. We have even settled for the story that we get to make up our own story as we go along.
What story drives your life? Is it a story you made up, or one someone else made up? Is it the story God is telling?
Well, I’ve got good news for you this morning. There is a brand we all share. There is a story we all share, and it is tied to an image. Let’s start with the image. Look at the person next to you. Now the person on the other side of you.
THIS is the meaning of Genesis 1:27
God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.
No really. This is the exact meaning of that passage! Back in the day when Genesis was written, it was not so easy to rule a large area as it is today. There was, you know, no internet, no telephone, no highway. A ruler could, of course, just raise a huge army and station troops everywhere, but a ruler who desired his subjects to live in peace would know that living under the constant watch of a soldier doesn’t inspire peace or favor. So a ruler’s power was stronger closer to home than far away. So a kingdom’s boundaries might be a hundred miles from the throne or capital city, but the king’s power dissipated with distance.
So, yes, the king could post troops, and kings did. But they also developed another practice. After all, they wanted their subject to know not only that they were under the king’s authority, but also under the king’s protection – in an extended sense, part of the King’s family. So, in addition to troops, the king would have statues – probably busts – chest up – of himself made and spread throughout the land. Thus, whenever anyone of the king’s subjects saw a bust of the king, they would be reminded that there was a king, and who the king was. The word for that was “image.”
The image of the king was placed throughout the kingdom as a reminder of who the King was.
We have been placed throughout the earth in the image of God, our Creator, as reminders that there is a King, and of who the King is.
Now, to know and understand, or even begin to understand, who this King is, required more than an image. It requires a story.
Thus the brand that we all share.
There is a story – God’s story – that is bigger than your story or my story. In fact, God’s story is big enough to contain your story and my story.
God’s story is so big that it really cannot be contained. For instance, look at today’s gospel reading. They were trying to catch Jesus in a trap – make him choose between God and Caesar, or between God and government. “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Now, of course, by ‘Law,’ they meant the Law of Moses – God’s law.
You know how Jesus responded, “Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription does it have?”
Caesar’s. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God (say it with me) what is God’s.
So, what is Caesar’s? What is God’s?
It seems simple: Caesar’s image is on the coin, so God’s people are to pay taxes. But wait – Caesar’s image also bears the image of God!
So, yes, God’s people are to pay taxes, but even here we encounter God’s story – the brand we all share!
Upon reflection, though, we sometimes live our lives more like the New Coke part of the story than the 1971 “I want to teach the world to sing” ad part of the story.
This brand that we all share – you, and me and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, every Syrian refugee, that homeless guy with whom you avoided eye contact, and that person who cut you off in traffic last Friday.
By the way, the instant you were cut off in traffic, before you saw the driver, what did you make up about who it was? A woman? An elderly person? A foreigner? A kid who just got their learner’s permit? A pastor late to a funeral?
Yes, that person, and whatever stereotype you might have had of that person bears the image of God, and that image invites you to a story.
This story is bigger than your story or my story or our stories put together. It is bigger than the story of Texas or of the United States. It is bigger than the story of Methodism or Christianity.
This story is God’s story. It is told in the Bible, and it carries on today. God’s story is this: God created – us in God’s own image, for fellowship and to steward, manage, look after, care for, all of this grand and glorious creation. That’s act 1. Act 2 isn’t as pretty: we took all the good God had to offer and said, “uh, thanks, God, but we’ll try our own thing.” We are still living Act 2 today, but we’ve also moved through Acts 3 and 4. Act 3 is Israel. God’s response to Act 2 is to raise up a people – first in Abraham, then in his family, then, of course, through Moses’ leadership the whole nation of people Abraham’s children had become. In Act 3 God blesses God’s people that they, in turn, might bless the rest of the world and draw them all back to their Creator.
Act 4 is Jesus. Through generations Israel failed to live up to it’s calling. (Dont’ be hard on Israel for this until you have succeeded in living up to God’s calling on your life!)
Act 5 is the church. Now. You and me. This is our part of the story that begins with creation. You and I are living in this part of the story. We can help write this part of the story! We are invited to be a part of the story that includes God’s Kingdom becoming more and more real and more and more present here and now.
If we live the story. If we accept the brand that we all share.
New Coke didn’t fit the brand, the story, that Coke had spent a century developing and telling. People didn’t buy the story that New Coke was telling.
What story is your life telling? Is your life telling the story of creation and fall? Is your life telling the story of God working in and through people – Abrahama, the people of Israel, Jesus, and the Church, to redeem, restore, renew creation? Is your life telling the story of the brand that God has placed in all of us – the very image of God our Creator? Is your life telling God’s story?
Some of our lives tell the story that God loves some of us, but not all of us. Some of our lives tell the story that God loves us if we do enough to earn it. Some of our lives tell the story that God used to love us, but then we sinned – we divorced, we cheated someone, we talked back to our parents, we emotionally abused our spouse, we cut people off in traffic.
But at least I haven’t robbed a bank or committed murder. So we tell the story of God loving everyone except bank robbers and murders.
You and I pervert God’s story in all sorts of ways – some big, some small. But if you or I tell others – or ourselves – a story that denies or takes away from God’s gracious offer of love and life, a story that ignores or denies the transformative power of God’s love, they we are perverting God’s story.
We pervert the story when we try to trick Jesus, like they did in today’s reading from Luke 20, into choosing God or community. We all tarnish the brand we all share.
New Coke offers a closing illustration of how we tarnish the brand we all share. There is pretty large consensus that the main motivation behind new Coke was the Pepsi Challenge. Beginning as far back as 1975 – 10 years before New Coke – Pepsi launched the Pepsi Challenge. The Pepsi Challenge was a blind taste test between, basically, a swallow of pepsi and a swallow of coke. These samples were, typically, served at room temperature. (what do they think we are, eurpeans?)
Coke drinkers often picked pepsi in the Pepsi Challenge.
Which, Coca Cola argued, really proved nothing. But by 1983 Pepsi was outselling Coke in grocery stores.
The bigger picture, of course, tells a different story. It turns out that even if people like Pepsi, the sweeter of the two if all they have is a sip, many of them still prefer the less-sweet taste of Coke if they are drinking more than a sip.
One of our main failures as a church is that we have been offering sips of life with Christ, which we present as pretty sweet, while we’ve been ignoring, or denying, the long-term benefits of following Jesus.
And I’m not talking about going to heaven. I’m talking about the brand we all share – learning to live with the constant reminder of who this God is who made us in God’s very image.
So if your version of Christianity is a sip test – take a little now and maybe a little every Sunday, then you’ve got the New Coke version. That’s a brand no one else wants to buy.
But here’s the version of Christiainity that is faithful to the brand – to God’s story of creation and redemption and healing and learning to live in the presence of God.
Everytime you see a person, remember this. Because this is the brand we all share.
And let others see this in you!
Just a few months ago I posted about our tendency to blame.
Working on Sunday’s sermon, I had a further thought along these lines.
We have been conditioned to blame the government. More specifically, we have been conditioned to blame those we view as “against us,” but I believe there has been a growing tendency for at least 30 years, to blame the government.
Not very long after Obama succeeded Bush as president, some people started complaining about his vacation practices. How many days he vacationed. How expense it is for the US President to go on vacation.
Obama supporters, of course, immediately rush to his defense.
Which was odd, because some of them had spent much of the years 2001-09 whining about how much vacation President Bush took.
Not to be outdone, I have no doubt that some of Bush’s staunchest supporters have since been leading the charge opposing Obama’s vacations.
Can we all just get a grip and acknowledge that If you are President of the United States, you don’t actually get vacation?
But we have a felt need to blame someone, and for the last several decades the government, at every level, has been an easy target.
But let’s set aside government for a moment: can we just admit that we are all generally eager to cast the blame at someone, anyone, besides ourselves?
I am working on a sermon series about conflict between faith and science. As I began to prepare the first sermon, I was struck with the realization that much of the perceived conflict between the two is related to our need to blame.
Want to know more? Come Sunday, January 10th, to Euless First United Methodist Church. We worship at 8:30 and 11 am.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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:
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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.