Does God agree with you? with me?

20160617_144150In the face of all the many disagreements, and further, in the face of what seems to be a lack of ability to communicate in civil and well-intentioned ways, I thought this morning of these words from Isaiah 55:8-9
My plans aren’t your plans,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways,
    and my plans than your plans. (CEB)
Do you suppose that when God says, in Isaiah 55, that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, God is referring to everyone? I have to admit that my usual first read of that passage is that God is referring to my enemy/opponent/anyone who disagrees with me.
To be fair, though, I have to admit, though it sometimes takes me a while, that God is, in fact, saying this to ALL of us.
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not have a second thought on my agenda for which this is the setup. Not that I never operate that way, but I am not this time)

What is our product?

weekfive.jpgSermon #5 in our Branded Series. This sermon concludes the series.


“If I only had a brain….” That’s the earworm that Lee Swann stuck me with last Sunday. Thank you!

Maybe now you’ve got it playing over and over, too. If so, you’re welcome!

I remember growing up watching “The Wizard of Oz,” by Frank Baum, every year when it came on TV. I am young enough to be not really too impressed that some of it was done in color, but we all loved the story.  Though, I admit, for several years I was scared of those flying monkeys!

Not long before I first saw the movie, in 1964, that Henry Littlefield unlocked the secrets of the story.  It was a populist allegory, he claimed, and was written as a commentary on turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th century) monetary policy. The yellow brick road was the gold standard, Emerald City represented the fraudulent greenback, or us currency without the gold standard. The Strawman was the american farmer, the tin man industrial workers, and the cowardly lion William Jennings Bryan.

Littlefield explanation of the story has since been discounted, but that, of course, doesn’t mean there aren’t other versions.

Like the religious version: the yellow brick road is the “way to enlightenment.” The emerald city represents heaven, and each of the main characters a particular version of human temptation or frailty.  The wicked witch of the west, being killed with water that represents baptism.

At least as plausible is the atheist allegorical explanation. There is no real wizard, just a human behind a curtain.

Some of you might like the feminist version. Frank Baum, the author, was son-in-law of a leading suffragist. All the characters who actually have any power in the movie are women.

You might have your own version of what the Wizard of Oz means. You might not – maybe you have never even seen the movie.

We are story-driven people, and our brains are meaning-making machines!  If there isn’t a story, we’ll make one. Where there isn’t meaning, we will make it up and overlay it.

No one tells a story for no reason, do they?  It might not be the most obvious reason, but there is a reason.

Today we remember the story of Pentecost.  You might wonder why we haven’t read the story of Pentecost from the scriptures.  You might not.  The story is in Acts 2.  I could tell you the reason I didn’t have it read is that I love our liturgists and didn’t want to make them read verses 9-11, which read:

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!         (Acts 2:9-11)

So, here is the story.  You can read the official version in Acts 2.  In fact, please read it sometime today.  Let me know what you think!

The disciples, having recently watched Jesus ascend into heaven, are meeting on the day of Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, a Feast Day on which God’s people gathered to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While waiting, the Holy Spirit shows up and fills them!

Filled with the Spirit, they step before the crowds and start speaking in tongues – languages – so that everyone, all those Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, etc., can understand them!

When you let the Holy Spirit speak through you, a lot less is lost in translation!

When we let the Holy Spirit speak, people will be able to hear us in their own language!

Having never heard anything like this, some of the crowds guessed the disciples were drunk – speaking out of their minds!  

Peter stood up to preach.  He preached; told them the story of Jesus in terms of some of the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.

“God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.”

This is the final message of our Branded series.  The premise is that Jesus is, or would be, branded. Branding, you recall, is not just a logo or a jingle, but an image or video or song that connects people (customers) with a story.

On that first day of Pentecost, the telling of God’s story brought 3,000 into the community of faith.

What will you do with this story?

For four weeks we have summarized God’s story. For four weeks we have talked about being made in God’s image – that we ALL bear the brand of God and God’s story, and that God’s story is one of hope and forgiveness and healing and reconciliation. Thus branded, we are, with God, in the business of making disciples; followers of Jesus. To make disciples, we have to be disciples. Last week we talked about getting to know what other people, people who don’t know Jesus and aren’t followers of Jesus, value. I claimed last Sunday, and still firmly believe, that when we practice the patience of listening to other people’s stories, we will learn what they value. By listening to others, we will also earn the right to be heard when we tell God’s story and how it has impacted us; changed us.

So, today, the finale.

Has God’s story changed us?

We are, you see, the product we have to offer.

As Christians, we ought to be inviting others to follow Jesus. To do so with integrity means we have to be following Jesus. We have to be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, “watch what I do, follow my example, follow Jesus the way I follow Jesus.”

Otherwise we are just making up a meaning to someone else’s story.

Pentecost is a grand point in the story where we learn, as Peter says, how to make God’s story our own story. After his sermon, the people ask, “What should we do? Peter answered:

“Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”

This IS the meaning to God’s story!  And the promise is “for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord God invites”

Our lives, lived as evidence, with evidence, of the Holy Spirit’s work in us IS the product we have to offer!

Flannery O’Connor wrote many beautiful stories.  Most of them are haunting, too. One of my favorites, one that haunts me, is “The River.”

In this story, Mrs. Connin comes to pick up young Harry from his parents, as his babysitter for the day.  Harry’s mom is sick – we learn a little later she is hungover. Mrs. Connin is a committed Christian woman and is excited to take Harry down to the river, where an evangelist named Bevel is healing and preaching.  Mrs. Connin hadn’t known Harry’s name, and asks him what it is, after telling him about this preacher. “Bevel,” Harry tells her.

He wants to please this Christian woman. He wants to find a place in her story.

At the river, she identifies him to the Preacher has having not been baptized. So Harry, or Bevel, is baptized.  It sounds good, too; the life that the preacher describes following baptism is far different from the drab, bleak, miserable life that is Harry’s, or Bevel’s, up to this point in the story.

Alas, he comes up out of the water the same. He is taken home, and sent off to bed, life is the same.

The story ends the next morning, Harry, or Bevel, having taken himself back to the river, and determined to hold himself under the water until he finds that wonderful life the preacher was talking about.

I read “The River” for the first time about 25 years ago. I cried as I finished it. Then I got up and went into my first child, Robbie’s room, where she lay napping. I cried quietly, and prayed. I hope and prayed that she would know God’s story in a way that gave her hope, not in a way that left her so disillusioned that she would drown herself looking for some great, good, place I had promised.

The Christian Hope you and I have to offer is the hope that others can see in our lives.  If it is a hope we tell them about, we had better be willing to live it, too!

This morning’s scripture readings – both shorter than the Acts passage, and both noticeably absent of difficult-to-pronounce Bible names, remind us of the goodness of God’s story, and of the promise of OUR place in it, and our role in sharing it with others.

All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.     (Romans 8:14-17)


Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”   (John 14:8-17, 25-27)

We are baptizing one young woman and welcoming her, another young woman and two young men into membership in the Church this morning.  Not just “our” church, but THE Church.  The church that represents Jesus Christ. The Church in which the Holy Spirit lives and is active.

The Church where God’s story is lived out and lived into.

The Church where our lives are changed as we actually follow Jesus day by day.

Will  you join me in committing to these young people that we WILL “surround them with a community of love and forgiveness ”? Will you pray for them, “that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to faith”?

And you know, don’t you, that really the way THEY will be true disciples is as the see and experience US being true disciples.

We are the product. Our lives, moved and changed by the Holy Spirit are what we have to offer!


STOP looking at Jesus!

This picture did it. Threw me across the line I’ve been toeing for several days, if not weeks.
barry gibb Jesus

Seems pretty harmless, right? Maybe even encouraging? Even if you realize, as I did the moment I saw it, that this is a picture of Barry Gibb, one of the Bee Gees.

Today we celebrate the Ascension.  The story is told in Acts 1:1-11.  40 days after the resurrection, Jesus “was lifted up,” (ascended) into heaven.  Today is that day this year – 40 days after Easter.

Immediately after the ascension, Luke, the author of Acts, tells us,

While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”     -Acts 1:10-11

This is the part of the Ascension story I want to focus on today. And, maybe, every day.

Today I echo the words of those two men in white robes:

STOP looking at Jesus!

Barry Gibbs/Jesus helped me grasp this, so now I share it with you.  We do too much looking at Jesus.

I think all these images of Jesus we surround ourselves with distract us from actually following Jesus. To be fair, it’s not Barry Gibbs’ fault. Here is a collage of many of the images of Jesus found around our church, Euless First United Methodist Church

Jesus at Euless FUMC

When we make Jesus look like a first century person, we are distracted from the realities of 21st century life.  However heart warming it is to see a picture of a bearded, robed guy, most of us don’t look at actually, living, bearded guys in robes with any such positive thoughts. This kind of removing Jesus from our current context too easily leads to nostaglic dreaming of all kinds of days-gone-by.  I’m pretty sure Jesus would rather we live today.

When we insert a image of Jesus into a current situation, we create space for us to back out of the challenging part of following Jesus. Are you tired, stressing out, even depressed?  Facing tough times?  Grieving the loss of a loved one or poor choices your children (or parents) are making? Here’s a picture of Jesus to tide you over to get you through.  No!  The picture of Jesus that Jesus wants you and me to share with the hurting is the Imago Dei (image of God) that we carry in our beings!

May you experience all the joy of the Ascension: knowing that Jesus is in heaven, and that he didn’t leave us here to stare up at heaven, or at pictures, looking at Jesus.  He left us, commissioned us, is counting on us, to continue his work.

So, STOP looking at Jesus and follow him!


The Hatefulness of not playing favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So was I playing favorites by choosing that verse?

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

I am left with the story of the starfish.

White finger starfish and seashells
White finger starfish and seashells

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

wesleys questions

W’s Qs #2

wesleys questionsPart of John Wesley’s genius, as the founder of the Methodist Movement, was the way he organized to make disciples.  He established small groups everywhere he went.  When these small groups met, they would go through a list of questions at each meeting. The questions were designed to guide the group members into a deeper walk with God.

Here is the second question:

  1. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?

Many congregations have at least one of these people, but in one church I served her name was Esther.  Esther believed that she should always speak her mind, no matter who it hurt along the way.

I read in a Chuck Swindoll book of that same era that “honesty is a virtue, but it is not the highest virtue.”

I think this misconception of honesty – sharing my opinion no matter the personal or relational cost – is exactly what this second question of Wesley’s small groups intends to address.

Notice it asks, “Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?” (emphasis added) I think honesty in our actions will sometimes cause us to limit the words we use. Honest actions make us choose our words more wisely.

So, “Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?” Is a great question for any of us who would follow Jesus to consider regularly.  Additionally, we are most likely to grow more honest in acts and words when we hold ourselves accountable to someone else.

I believe that, at its best, honesty in acts and words means consideration for one’s own worth and that of others.

You Don’t Preach Right!

“You didn’t begin your sermon with the reading of the scripture text. You are always supposed to read the scripture as the beginning of your sermon.”

This is a very close approximation to something a colleague of mine was told recently.  This colleague is soon to go before the Board of Ordained Ministry for commissioning – a major step towards ordination.

Part of the qualifying process is submission of a sermon – both manuscript and video recording.

My colleague asked for my insights as to whether such a particularity could, in fact, derail his quest.

I shared that I cannot remember the last time I read the scripture text as the beginning of my sermon.

For me, anyway, this rarely if ever happens in part because our liturgist reads one of our texts immediately before I stand to preach.  Re-reading the scripture myself would give in to the notion that preaching is not really a part of the worship service as a whole, but rather a stand-alone event thrown into the midst of a worship service.

I encouraged my colleague to continue to preach the Word, and to preach the text for the service, whether or not that scripture text was written into the sermon.

A much larger concern for me is that someone would suggest so simple a component done differently would disqualify a sermon altogether.  What I think really happened was an incident of either

  1. “You didn’t preach the way I was taught to preach” or
  2. “You didn’t preach the way I like to hear someone preach.

Are there specific mechanics that you believe are absolutely essential to the successful preaching of a sermon? Do Jesus’ and Peter’s and Paul’s preaching always follow your rules?