This is sermon 2 in the Branded series at Euless First United Methodist Church.
Retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon once told this story about the merging of two Annual Conferences in South Carolina. These were, by the way, not geographic areas being merged, but, rather, racially segregated conferences.
However antiquated it might sound, Methodism in the South was not much faster than the surrounding culture to bridge racial divides. But it did happen, and it happened several years ago now. Willimon’s story began with the committee charged with organizing the first united gathering for these two conferences.
I imagine the meeting started slowly, quietly, intensely. I suppose everyone at the table (I assume they met around a table) was eager for this merger to work, yet uncertain about the future. Cautious, yet hopeful. “We’ve never worked this closely with ‘them’ before,” both teams likely felt, but left unsaid.
So, one of the white men began with a goodwill gesture, inviting any of the black men to share, “Would you tell us how you all have organized your annual conference meeting?”
“Surely,” one of them replied. “We would begin with a rousing opening worship service on Sunday evening. Then, Monday morning, we would start the day early with a devotional time and then follow with a worship service celebrating what God had done in the past year. By the time that finished, we would receive an address from the Bishop, then adjourn for lunch. Following lunch we would gather again for a worship service….”
At this point he was interrupted, respectfully, by one of the white men, “But did you ever get around to the business of the annual conference?”
“What IS the business of the Annual Conference?” came back a question that we ought all take to heart, especially when we get heady about what great things we are going to plan or organize or do for God.
What IS the business of Euless First United Methodist Church? What business are we in?
Last week we focused on The Brand We All Share. This brand we all share is the story of God’s love and faithfulness and it we are reminded of it every time we see a human – another person, or ourselves in a mirror, because we are all created in God’s image. Branding, you’ll remember, is not an image or a tune, but a story evoked by an image, song, video, etc.
So, as God’s people, it behooves us to line our lives up with the story that God is telling. God’s story is, briefly:
Act 1: creation – good and very good!
Act 2: sin, brokenness and estrangement in relationships: between people, and between people and God
Act 3: Israel – God raises up a people to represent God, to bless others and to draw them away from their sin, brokenness and estrangement and toward the God who created them
Act 4: Jesus – God’s people having failed to faithfully live in covenant with God to bless others and draw them to God, Jesus becomes the faithful human in and through whom all are offered healing and hope from their sin, brokenness and estrangement from God and each other.
Act 5: Church – Having vanquished sin and death through crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus calls forth a Church, a “called-out people” whom God intends to embody the Kingdom of God already present on earth, here and now.
That is God’s story for us, for all of us; for all of creation.
We are, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, we are here to be ambassadors for Jesus; God is negotiating through us for the lives of everyone!
Even clearer than that, this morning’s gospel reading seems as clear as the air in this room: we are to “go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”
So, with all that in mind, I ask today, What business are we in?
The answer must not be as easy as “making disciples and serving as ambassadors for Jesus.”
What business are we in? Filling the sanctuary? Training children?
Converting people? Saving souls? Accumulating Jesus points? Earning our way into heaven? Building church facilities with snack bars, bowling alleys and shooting ranges so the saved will no longer have to mix with the great unwashed masses?
The United Methodist Church’s mission statement is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
This is our business. Anything that detracts from making disciples is extra. Anything that is not part of making disciples ought to be very carefully considered before we do it as a church.
Does operating a food pantry make disciples of Jesus Christ? Maybe, but not necessarily.
Does going to a Texas Rangers game together after worship make disciples? Maybe, not automatically.
Does having meetings every week make disciples of Jesus? Again, maybe. But 2 hours into a 60 minute meeting I have my suspicions.
Does painting the exterior trim on the sanctuary (it needs it badly, by the way) make disciples of Jesus? Not necessarily – plenty of churches with well maintained facilities close every year.
So, if it is so easy to answer the question, “What business are we in?” why are we so easily distracted and why do we so easily and often fail to keep the main thing the main thing.
The business we are in is making disciples for Jesus Christ. Anything that detracts from that must be open for reconsideration.
Everything thing that detracts from making disciples for Jesus Christ can potentially keep us from making disciples for Jesus Christ.
In fact, it is even more challenging that that: getting our focus off of the complexity of what it means to make disciples is, I would argue, our greatest challenge.
To explain what I mean, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story of wolves and Yellowstone National Park.
For the safety of people and especially of other animals such as deer and elk, wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone National Park in the 1920’s.
In 1974 the grey wolf was included on the list of endangered animals in The Endangered Species Act. A pack of 8 were brought in from Canada and reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.
Whereas it had been thought that eliminating wolves would have improved life for the remaining species (especially elk), we have learned something, well, amazing.
Yes, the number of elk has decreased drastically. Elk reached a peak of about 11,000. Now 11,000 elk was too many for the land. Much of the grassland was overgrazed. Overgrazing led to erosion.
Re-enter the wolf. Elk numbers are down, but grasslands quickly do better. Wolves ate coyotes, so other species that thrive in grasslands that had been coyote food – rabbits and mice – began to flourish. More rabbits and mice meant more foxes and hawks and badgers and weasels. More ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the wolves’ leftovers. Bears fed on these leftovers, too, as well as on the increased production of berries, since the elk population was down.
The elk had not only over grazed grasses in meadows, but also seedling aspen and cottonwood. The reintroduction of wolves actually aided in forest growth – some areas saw the height and thickness of trees quintuple in a decade. More trees meant more beavers, and beavers, like wolves, provide ecosystem boosts to many other animals – muskrats, otters, and ducks and fish.
But this went beyond just other living things. The very health of the rivers in the area was improved. Yes. Wolves saved rivers. Well, not exactly saved rivers. But, the reintroduction of wolves brought back balance to the ecosystem that strengthened the grasslands which meant less erosion which meant healthy, stronger, cleaner rivers.
One aspect of the ecosystem was eliminated, and the entire system was thrown out of balance. Reintroduce that one element, in this case, wolves, and over the space of 20 years, with careful management, of course, the system is restored to balance and the entire system flourishes.
As a disciple of Jesus Christ, your life is an ecosystem. This is as true spiritually as it is biologically.
Your body couldn’t survive long, and life would be horrific to live, were it not for the millions of bacteria and other micro-flora that live off of your body – both all over your skin, and especially inside your digestive system.
This is why healthcare is so challenging: if it were ever so simple as “you need more calcium or potassium or fiber,” how easy life would be!
How do you lose weight? Take in less calories than you burn. But you can’t just stop eating. If you just stop eating, sure, you’ll lose weight, but your body will react and burn less calories until it finds some sort of equilibrium with the calories you are now taking in.
It is just as true for our spiritual lives as our physical or biological lives! Sometimes the story we tell is that all you have to do to be a disciple is pray every day and read your bible every day.
Sometimes we just want people to “make a decision for Jesus,” say the “sinner’s prayer,” and then, like, “poof!” they’re a mature disciple of Jesus.
Other times we make it just about helping people – if you just feed enough poor people or give away enough of your stuff or your money, then God will write your name in the “faithful” category.
Some of us have turned the Golden Rule around – I haven’t done anything bad to anyone, and that’s enough for Jesus!
I have pastored many people from all of these and other perspectives. There are so many ways you and I can reduce what is required to be a disciple to a list – (as short a list as possible, please!) – but they all do the same thing to the ecosystem of our lives as taking wolves out of the equation did to Yellowstone.
We need a fuller, richer version of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ! When we begin to live this fuller, richer version of being a disciple, we find that we are not only being disciples of Jesus Christ, but that we are making disciples of Jesus Christ. And when we are making disciples of Jesus Christ, we create space for God to bring on the transformation of the world.
We are NOT in the business of transforming the world. We are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. If we do that, God will transform the world!
I have served as pastor of many people over the years. One of the things about this work that most often breaks my heart is when someone who, by all accounts has been a faithful member of the church, expresses uncertainty about his or her relationship with God.
So, in case you are one of those persons; in case you have settled for “being a disciple” meaning you should go to church or read your bible every morning or pray every day or give money to the church and a few other good causes or go on a mission trip or collect coats for the elderly or visit the elementary school every week or prisons when you can. Maybe you’ve gotten saved seven times, baptized five, and say the sinner’s prayer every night before you got to sleep, but you still aren’t sure you’re on God’s “approved” list.
Become a disciple. Follow Jesus. Sure, you can “make decisions for Christ,” but if you don’t change some habits and patterns of behavior, what you call a decision is lip service or pandering.
Become a disciple. Start a journey down the road with Jesus. The gospels are a good place to start: how did Jesus interact with other people? What kinds of words did Jesus use? What kinds of people did Jesus hang out with?
Of course, in the gospels, you’ll find this, too: when Jesus sent his disciples off to do something, he never sent them solo. He always sent them in at least pairs. You cannot be a disciple on your own! You need help – help in the form of other human being who are also out to follow Jesus, to be his disciples.
We are in the business of making disciples, and we can only do this by being disciples. There are other ways we could get more people in here. There are other ways we could collect more money, and maybe even other ways we could give more money away. But there are no other ways to be disciples of Jesus.
I close with this fabulously rich point that one of you made recently for me. You accompanied our confirmation class to the Conference Confirmation Celebration. You choose a “breakout session” aimed at helping youth manage themselves on social media. You opened the eyes of my heart once again to the beauty of Philippians 4:8.
Now, to be fair, youth aren’t the only one challenged to behavior themselves well on social media. I’ve seen some of the stuff some of you post, and, well, we older folk have no place to stand to pontificate to adolescents about what they ought to do.
Which is the beauty of your sharing Philippians 4:8 with me. Because Philippians 4:8 just happens to be followed by Philippians 4:9 – great how it works that way, huh? Here’s chapter 4 verse 8, shared at this breakout session as a good guiding principle for what you share on social media:
From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.
How great is that! How might our perspective, our openness to God, and our vision of the divine be increased, and how might our bitterness, our pettiness, our small-mindedness be decreased, if we focus our thoughts on “anything that is excellent, admirable, true, holy, just, pure, lovely, worthy of praise! This isn’t just for youth; this is for anyone who would be a disciple!
Which brings me to verse 9, and the power of quoting verse 8 to a bunch of youth. Here is verse 9: Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
WHEN you are willing to say to someone, “practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us,” THEN you are a disciple, and THEN you will find you are making disciples!
And making disciples is the business we are in!
One of the most challenging part of learning to work at McDonald’s in high school was grasping the “customer is always right” mantra.
Is the customer, indeed, always right? Of course not. But if it costs you a little this time and they return as a customer, many stores choose to err on the side in favor of the customer always being right.
It just struck me that many of the customers are likely aware of this dictum. And yet very, very few take advantage of it in a dishonest way. I suppose you might say there is a broad-based social agreement in favor of respecting others. Whether I am the customer or the cashier, I am more focused on getting through my day as well as I can than I am on cheating someone else out of something.
But is this really a fair assumption? The tension I read on social media and see and hear on newsfeed might have one believe otherwise.
Some of us are indeed very suspicious that most everyone else out there is really out to get the better of us, to cheat us or hurt us or take advantage of us.
There is, it seems, an awful lot of suspicion of the other going around. I’m not sure this has increased recently, but perhaps it has. I know social media magnifies it.
As I contemplated an assumption of a broad-based social agreement of respect in terms of this (seemingly) increased level of mistrust and disrespect, and was stopped dead in my tracks with this:
How much of our increased mistrust and disrespect finds its source in projection?
When I am less trusting, it is often because I feel less trustworthy myself. When I am feeling good about myself, I tend to be more generous and trusting of others.
I wouldn’t presume to tell you that all of your issues or suspicions or mistrust of some other person or group of people is entirely your projection of your own fear or lack of confidence or uncertainty or dissatisfaction with yourself.
But I will offer you this challenge: will you join me in rejecting the projecting of your own stuff onto others?
The more of us who do this, the more space, I believe, we create for the presence of the Kingdom of God here and now.
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!