Vision Check

Sermon preached Sunday, August 30, 2015 at Euless First United Methodist Church

Can you see the future from here?

What does it look like?

Which direction should we look?

Some of us, as we age, do a whole lot more looking behind us than in front of us.  It is tempting; we know the past, we’ve been there before!  Things look familiar.

Yet, we have to admit, the farther they get behind us, the harder it is to focus. The distant past gets to looking real good – so we say things like “back in the day…” or “remember when…” or even “kids these days…”

Maybe it’s just a matter of getting older, but it seems like I hear more lamenting about the present and the future than I used to.

But the future is where we are going, so we may as well face it, and prepare for it.

To move forward, we have to look back.  The past, all that is behind us, has played a role in making us who we are today. It has shaped us for better and for worse.  This Church has a long, rich history that will affect – that we want to affect – where we go from here.

Cars are equipped with mirrors for a reason; the safest driving forward includes checking your mirrors regularly.  But the mirrors make up only a small part of what you see as you drive forward.

So, let’s look back, and let’s look forward.  

Euless First United Methodist Church was founded in 1876. Since you don’t remember 1876 here’s a bit of an historical snapshot of the year this church was founded.

U.S. Grant was President. Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for an invention he called the telephone. (patent #174,466)  The Transcontinental Express reached San Francisco on June 4, 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left New York. Texas A & M opened for classes on Sept. 4.

In 1876, the year this church was founded, the Dow Jones Industrial Average didn’t even exist.

Well, the Dow Jones exists now, doesn’t it?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened this past Monday to a drop of more than one thousand points.

To be fair, markets around the world dropped, too.  UK, down almost 5%. Japan, down 4.5%. You get the idea.

The stock market is not the economy, and the economy isn’t the stock market, but Monday told us all one thing, at least: there is a lot of uncertainty to go around.

How are you with uncertainty?

How are you with certainty?

We’ve been reminded this week that life is uncertainty.  Even if you are completely, absolutely, 100% confident that your faith in Christ has locked down your eternal guarantee of God’s favor and presence, It is very likely that you don’t always feel this way.

Certainty of the head does not equal certainty of the heart.

For that matter, I have found that, over time, what once counted as certainty might, a few years later, be considered, upon reflection, naivete.  Or maybe youthful exuberance.

Because there are these stages throughout life when you change, or shift.   Don’t you remember that time when you got back together with your parents as a young adult and realized they weren’t out of touch anymore?  As Mark Twain put it:

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

And that’s just in your early 20s. I don’t know about you, but when I pause and reflect, I’ve had several of these shifts. Enough, I suppose, to worry or frustrate my parents. Except that, as I get older, I realize that parents go through their own shifts as well.

So, while we can complain about, and lament about change, I suppose even the way we lament about change changes.

And we move forward, into the future.  Sorry, but I can’t help this: time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin, into the future. And it is dragging us along with it.

Maybe you can imagine how God’s people felt, then, when Jeremiah wrote these words to them:

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Like us, they knew their past. Like us, they didn’t know their future.

They knew they were God’s people – God’s chosen people – chosen to share the good news of God’s intent to bless all humanity, even all creation, through them.  

We know we are God’s people, chosen to share the good news of God’s intent to bless all humanity, even all of creation, don’t we?

This is why our mission is to try to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. Unless we follow Jesus, we are not living faithfully as God’s people. Our living faithfully as God’s people is necessary for us to be part of what God wants to do and is doing in the world.

Last week we looked at the end of Luke chapter 9, which was a concentrated dose of what following Jesus means. This week, we pick up the story right after that.  Jesus sent out 72 “others” – this is above and beyond the 12 – to go in pairs ahead of them.  They were sent, like we are sent, to prepare the way for Jesus.

Let’s face it: you and I don’t “bring Jesus” to people.  One of the things we learn as we go out into mission – whether on mission trips or in service to the school, or the Food Pantry, is that God is already at work in the lives of other people!

As we learn to follow Jesus better and better, we also begin to realize so many ways that God is already at work in the world around us, and that God invites us to come be a part of what God is already doing!

In the Jeremiah reading, the prophet and God are encouraging the people to develop an attitude h  of blessing toward Babylon.  Toward their captors – the ones who came into their land and hauled them off into exile.

“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

Sometimes a church can get its focus off of the bigger picture and begin to worry about itself. This would be an easy time for us to fall into this trap. Airport Freeway is going to be widened, and that’s taking some of our land, including our playground and our oldest building. The Main St. bridge could be closed for as much as a year and a half. Our sanctuary was struck by lightning and we haven’t been able to use it for 17 weeks. Attendance, and therefore giving, have both been down for the past four months.

This would be an easy time to circle the wagons, and start to worry about us.

And yet, We’ve been here since 1876.  We have been through more challenging times than this, and we will face more challenging times in the future.  What are we to do in challenging times?  “Promote the welfare of the city.”

We have taken great steps into South Euless Elementary over the past few years, but there is so much more to be done!  So many students in our area would go home after school to empty houses or apartments, that they don’t go home – many of them go to the library or rec. center. How could we help those facilities handle so many kids – and how can we help so many kids know that they are not alone?

There are many single parent households around us – and there are projected to be more in 5 years than there are now.  There are also more grandparents raising their grandkids than there were 20 years ago, and this number, too, is likely to rise.  Some of you are raising grandkids!  What kinds of things can we do to to promote the welfare of these folks who have step up to try to raise children as well as they can?

We have 50,000 square feet of building space here, that has been built and paid for by you all and the 139 years of Euless Methodists before you. (did you know our entire indebtedness is only $30,000?)  How can we make this space available to those around us and promote the welfare of our city?

What things can we be doing – on our property, and off it, inside our buildings and miles away, that will promote the welfare of the city?  The vows we take at baptism – and renew at each new baptism we witness, remind us that God calls us to promote the welfare of the city.  For some, stepping out there seems too risky for now.  Fair enough.  Can we all at least agree that promoting the welfare of the city as a church requires more from every one of us than merely occupying a pew on Sunday morning?  Where and how is God calling you to be involved?

The kicker, to me, of the Jeremiah passage is the “your future depends on its welfare” line.

We had an 7 person team meeting with a consultant for 6 consecutive weeks.  On top of the 3 hour meetings we had each week, we had homework. One week our homework was to interview people from the surrounding community – city leaders and people who just live and work around here.  When asked what they knew of our church, too many of them knew only that we had a Preschool and a Food Pantry.

Our future as a Church depends on the welfare of our city!

Can you imagine the conversations that happened in that Woodlawn Grange Hall 139 years ago?  What kinds of things do you think the early Methodist and Presbyterian congregations had then?  What were the issues they faced?  How much uncertainty do you think they felt toward the future?

The Grange organization, by the way, was a national fraternal organization “that encourage[d] families to band together to promote the economic and political well-being of the community and agriculture.”

The Woodlawn Grange helped us get started. That was across Main Street from where we are now.  Did you just picture 7-11 or a Chinese restaurant that used to be a Taco Bell?  Or the Euless Lumber Company?

We moved over to the east side of Main Street in 1891.  124 years ago.  Perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to the Grange for getting us started.  Perhaps we owe God a debt of gratitude for leading us to this city at this point in time.

To whom do you owe a debt of gratitude for who you have become?

We do well to look forward by first looking back, but also by maintaining an attitude of gratitude.

If we are to follow Jesus faithfully into the future, we really must stay aware of all we have to be thankful for! We will need the energy and raised spirit that gratitude brings because “the harvest is bigger than you can imagine,” Jesus says, “but there are few workers.”

If we stopped there it might seem like Jesus intends to overwhelm his followers. I don’t believe Jesus ever intends to overwhelm his followers because he is trustworthy and offers all the support and resources that are needed for what he calls us to do. Paul wrote in bringing 1 Thessalonians to a close that “The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.”

What Jesus tells these 72, I believe he tells us:  basically, it is this: establish relationships, build trust with the people you go to.  You can’t make them trust you, you can’t make them like you, but I think Jesus agrees with Paul here, where in Romans 12:18 he says, “ If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”

It seems like we are sometimes looking to be offended.

Hear these words of Jesus again:

Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ (Luke 10:5-9)

and even if they don’t accept you, welcome you, agree with you, Jesus says this:

Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’ I assure you that Sodom will be better off on Judgment Day than that city.

We enter a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We pray for a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We promote the welfare of a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We do this because our future depends on its welfare.

This is why we have adopted these Mission, Vision, and Purpose statements as a Church:

Mission: Euless First United Methodist Church’s mission is to follow Jesus Christ a bit better today than yesterday. Through these efforts we develop a relationship with Christ and thus transform people, their lives, our community and the world.

Vision: Our vision is to be a community of God’s love and grace so that the larger community and world see God by our actions and outreach.

Purpose: We seek to follow Jesus better by moving people from knowing God, to growing in relationship with God, to going forth with God to serve others, and finally, glowing for God by witnessing to their faith to others.

Our desire, intent, and plan are to follow God into the future that God is setting before us. Our mission, vision, and purpose can help us become, perhaps, an MVP on God’s team.

Next year we celebrate 140 years as a congregation.  We face the future with uncertainty and certainty.  Uncertainty in that we don’t know what the stock market or the economy will do; we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

But we have certainty in that, as the old song goes, “we know who holds” tomorrow.

And God, our God, the one who holds tomorrow, calls us to pray for and promote the welfare of the city to which God has sent us.

To God be the glory for the next 140 years!

Vision Check

The Challenge of Discernment

One Monday I heard both of these claims:

  • First, someone shared the exciting news of a special ministry event in which he had participated.  What made it so exciting, he said, was that “Satan was trying to stop us at every turn.”  He went on to describe a long strings of challenges and threats to the success of the event.  The team, with God’s help, overcame all the challenges, and had a wonderful, blessed time!
  • Then, less than 2 hours later, another man shared that he had been learning the lesson of discernment from this fabulous Christian book.  To sum it up, one can discern one is on track to follow God’s will as obstacles are overcome through seeking counsel, logic, wisdom, and God. The lowering of obstacles is a sure sign of God’s will!

So, which is it?  Do you know you are on the right track when Satan is throwing obstacles in your way, or when God is providing an obstacle-free path to follow.

Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices
Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices

Call me cynical, but the answer is obvious.  We discern we are following God’s will, or the right way, when we do what we have determined we will do. If obstacles arise, we ask God to overcome Satan. If obstacles don’t arise, we assume, I suppose, God has already overcome Satan.

The Christian tendency is to turn to “Biblical Principles” to direct discernment.  You know as well as I do that given enough time and practice at ‘spin,’ almost anything can be made to sound like a “Biblical Principle.”  Let’s face it: for years, slavery was accepted as a “Biblical Principle”!

What has your experience been in your quest for discernment?  Have you moved beyond finding the proper steps to under gird your own will? If so, how?

The Challenge of Discernment

Follow Jesus

Have you ever gotten the sense that God was looking for you?
Not that God doesn’t always know where you are. That’s a different discussion.  Sometimes it feels like, maybe, well, if it were a commercial, “God is looking for a few good men!”  If it were a poster at the post office, made, “God wants YOU to join the (heavenly) army.”
Have you ever just had this really strong feeling that God was around, and that God was interested in YOU?
Some of us get the feeling that God is looking for us whenever we do something wrong. When we give into temptation; tell that lie (however small a lie), steal the money – or time, or pirate a movie or song, or spend time on parts of the internet that mean no one any good.
But this morning I invite you to consider that God looks for you not to punish or condemn, but to love.
After all, Jesus himself said he “came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
This is the God, after all, of whom David wrote:
Lord, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
    Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
    If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
    stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
        even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
        the light will become night around me,”
    even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
        Nighttime would shine bright as day,
        because darkness is the same as light to you!
and those are just the first 10 verses of the 139th Psalm!
Maybe you have felt, at least from time to time, like God was looking for you – out of love, not out of vengeance.
Maybe you haven’t
I want to assure you with all I know and believe, that God – the God who we know best in Jesus – loves you, as the bible says, “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself,” (Jeremiah 31:3) and is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” (Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, Nehemiah, Joel)> As Exodus 34:6 specifically says, “God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness.”
This is the God who is looking for you, and who came, in Jesus, “to seek and save the lost.”
At least in some since, you’ve been found!  You are here, among others, with others – some you know, some you don’t, because, some way or another, God has found you.
God has found you! Did you even know God was looking – looking just for you?
If God has indeed found us: found you, and found me, what do we do with that?
Do we believe God has found us?  Do we follow?  Do we have to believe to follow?  Do we have to follow to believe?
Would it surprise you if I told you Jesus never walked up to anyone and said, “believe in me,” but he did – regularly, it seems – invite people to follow him.
We the people of Euless First UMC are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. Do we all believe?  Well, I’d have to say the answer to that question is probably yes and no. For each of us.
Let’s face it; even the most seemingly faithful among us do not live lives that portray Jesus every day, with every breath that passes from us. Some, I’m sure, struggle to believe some of the stories of the Bible.  Some struggle to believe that God is present every day; that God cares every day.
But I believe this is the really good news for us, and for everyone, whether or not we can believe it all, hook, line, and sinker, we can all follow.
And Jesus’ way sure seems to me to be a healthy, wise, insightful, caring, loving way to live.
Jesus’ way is exactly the way God would live if God were human.  Because Jesus is, we believe, God incarnate in humanity.
Now we are back to believing!  It’s hard to get your mind around God in humanity.  That’s a good sign.  If you and I could understand it – could really get our minds all the way around it, we really wouldn’t be talking about much of a God, would we?
We’ve all got our challenges, right?  I remind you that there is still nothing new under the sun. No matter the technology, no matter the political situation, no matter the year the calendar marks, Solomon’s wisdom stands: there is nothing new under the sun. We all have our challenges.
I mean, like at this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel. Jesus and his disciples are heading for Jerusalem.  Someone approaches and does something no one else had done.
He says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Now, Peter says something very much like this, but Peter had already been following Jesus when he said this.
This guy, in Luke 9:57, cold calls Jesus. It’s like he thinks he is making Jesus an offer he can’t refuse.
When we think we might be doing God, or Jesus, or someone else a favor, and this is what motivates us to follow Jesus, Jesus has these words for us: “Foxes have dens and birds in the sky have nests, but God incarnate in humanity has no place to lay his head.”
Jesus never promised you a rose garden; much less a McMansion or a pension, or even a lazyboy.
Following Jesus is hard, challenging stuff; but it is more rewarding than anything else you’ll ever try. And I don’t just mean eternal rewards.  I specifically and especially do not mean merely “getting to go to heaven when you die.”
Christians: we have got to stop trying to sell Christianity as a way out of this life and into a heavenly afterlife.  We lose people when we do so. Some of the ones we lose are among us: there are people among us who are long-time followers of Jesus who still worry day to day whether or not they’ve done enough, or done good enough, to “get to go to heaven when they die.”
Jesus is NOT about you or me doing ENOUGH to get to go to heaven when we do. Jesus is ALL about you and me following him here and now; and experience what Jesus called eternal life – knowing God – here and now.
Let me add, parenthetically, that if there is anything about Christianity that has stood the test of time it is this: Jesus came to take from our shoulders the weight of feeling like we have to “earn” eternal life or heaven.
So, I don’t know if you got your sense that you have to earn it from overbearing parents or just from capitalist dogma. I don’t know if your earliest, deepest-buried memories of getting love from your parents depended upon your crying loud enough to be heard or looking sorry enough to be forgiven, but our God isn’t like that.  I don’t know if you have read a market-economy understanding onto salvation, but the salvation God offers cannot be bought – or sold – and is not subject to the law of supply and demand. Rather, God’s love and grace and offer of salvation is there, available for any who would come and follow: Paul wrote it this way in Romans 5:
6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people.7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.
It is not on you to earn it, to deserve it, to keep up a certain level of behavior to acquire or hold what God offers in Jesus.  It is on you to follow.
So, this first man offers to follow Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t turn him away, but challenges him that it won’t be easy and the rewards offered might not be those he is looking for.
Then, immediately, Luke takes us to door #2.  Behind door #2 is a man to whom Jesus extends the usual, “follow me.”
This man had other ideas. His plate was full and he had many other things to do.  Could following Jesus fit well within his already established list of priorities?  He made it about family – “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” – God cares about family, right?
Well, yes. God cares about family, but Jesus’ reply was “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”
By law, family was responsible for proper, respectful burial of family. Does the law stand in the way of following Jesus?
When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” throwing the law back at Jesus will hardly win the argument. When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” whatever reason or excuse that comes to mind, remember this: Jesus, God incarnate as a human is calling, and God is calling now. Everything else – EVERYTHING ELSE – moves down a level on the priority chart.
Then, door #3. The only other person in the gospels to cold-call Jesus: “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”
So, uh, Jesus, can we talk about this later? I’m kinda busy right now.
You may be too busy to follow Jesus.  But consider this: the One who made you, who “created your innermost parts; who knit you together while you were still in your mother’s womb;” The One by whom you were “marvelously set apart, or, as an older translation put it, “fearfully and wonderfully made; the One who formed you from dust and breathed life into you; that One is calling, “follow me.”
If Jesus is calling, and you can hear it, then now is the time to follow.
Some, having believed, follow. Some, having begun to follow, find they have come to believe.
I think marriage is a good metaphor for it, and one that scripture uses throughout.
Did you really know what you were doing when you got married?
Thinking you could know someone well enough to make a fully informed decision on marriage is like waiting to have kids “till you’ve got enough money.”  There is NOT enough money to raise kids. And there isn’t knowing someone well enough to make a fully informed decision.
This is because the kind of love that marriage calls for is the kind of love that is at least as much of the will as of the mind.  It isn’t just about the dates or the data but the determination.
You don’t know someone well enough to marry them. You don’t love someone enough to marry them. You decide to marry them based on what you know, the love you feel, and your willingness to make a commitment.
Because you never really know what you’re doing when you get married.  You not only don’t know your partner well enough; you don’t know yourself well enough!  Let’s face it; what 20 year old, or 30 year old, or 50 year old knows himself or herself well enough to make a commitment forever?
You don’t know what tomorrow holds, let alone 10 or 30 or 60 years from now.
But you step in and you step up and you walk together. You follow the paths before you by parents, grandparents, and friends – by people who have walked the path of marriage before you.
Sometimes this works better than others.  We learn along the way when to follow whom.
Jesus invites you to follow, and it is much like this, except you can ALWAYS count on Jesus to be worth following.
We say that we are “trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday,” and we mean it.  If we aren’t following better, then, we have to admit, we aren’t really following.  Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus.  This is the most beautiful part of it! Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus.
I also think that part of following Jesus is inviting others to follow – follow Jesus, and follow you.  After all, if you are following Jesus, and invite someone to follow you, you are inviting them to follow Jesus.  We are tempted to say, “Don’t follow me, follow Jesus,” but this implies, and is too often lived out, as saying we aren’t really following Jesus.
Next Sunday I want to talk more about the directions I think our following Jesus together are taking us.  Many of you have been part of this conversation for quite some time, but not everyone has.  This is exciting stuff!  We are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday, and, as Jesus promised in John 15, it has been bearing fruit.
So, in closing, I want to invite you to follow Jesus.  Jesus is calling you.  Whatever else is going on around you, whatever other noise is in your ears or in your head, if you are here, or if you can hear this, Jesus is saying, “follow me,” inviting you to follow him.
Will you listen?  Will you respond?  Will you accept Jesus’ invitation?

Follow Jesus