Following Jesus is not always this easy, but sometimes it is pretty straightforward. https://youtu.be/jSk0R2epPwk
Sermon #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!
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
For at least the last 25 years, I have answered this question, “Yes, by the grace of God.”
The other seven members of my ordination class in the Texas Annual Conference in 1991 answered the same. As far as I know, every ordained United Methodist has answered the same way.
I was pretty sure that the eight of us didn’t have exactly the same understanding of what this question meant. No one asked. No explanation, no dissertation was required
I can tell you that I full on loved that question! Fresh out of Asbury Seminary, I was deeply committed to living into Christian Perfection. Wesley’s teaching on perfection played an essential role in my choice of seminary.
When I was 27 I fully expected, by the grace of God, to be made perfect in love in this life.
Today, at 52 I still fully expect, by the grace of God, to be made perfect in love in this life.
My understanding of what it means, and towards what, particularly, I am moving, has changed. If it hadn’t, I would have serious reservations about my fitness for effective ministry.
I haven’t talked to anyone from my ordination class in at least 20 years. This is partly because I have changed conferences; I am now a clergy member of the Central Texas Conference.
Occasionally I wonder what the 27 year old Steve Heyduck would think of the 52 year old version. There would be some serious disagreements. And yet, we are together. I wouldn’t be the me I am today had I not been him then.
I wouldn’t be committed today to being made perfect in love in this life were it not for my original commitment then. With 25+ years on this path, then, I have to think I’m closer now than I was then. If I didn’t believe this, I would owe it to the Church to surrender my credentials and find another vocation.
Part 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 ninth question:9. When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
If the good news of Jesus really is good news, isn’t it worth sharing? Of course it is, but the typical United Methodist doesn’t want to be “that guy,” you know, the one who always locks down the conversation and heaven and hell and whether your faith is good enough to get you to heaven.
Rather than be “that guy,” many of us have turned our faith into something entirely personal and private. “My faith is between me and God!” we insist. We respect other people too much to insert ourselves and our beliefs into their lives.
But again, if the good news of Jesus really is good news, then it IS worth sharing.
The beauty of this question is that it is asked in the context of a small group of people who are all trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. If we do have faith in Christ, and if we are indeed trying to follow him better today than yesterday, then we are open to speaking about our faith to others.
A great place to start is to write out the story of your faith. When did you first believe? How has your relationship with God grown? What are your biggest struggles, your greatest victories? Where have you been most challenged to feel God’s presence? How do you seek God’s presence when you don’t feel it?
Your answer to any of these questions will encourage you in your faith! They will also offer you connections with other people.
Remember, you aren’t necessarily trying to convert people. You might be, like a pastor friend of mine always said, “Just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
What have you found in God’s love recently? Would you be willing to share this with someone else?
Liam, my 4 year old son, got glasses a week ago. He didn’t have the words or perspective, upon first putting them on, to express how well he could now see. The optometrist had also told us that he has been working so hard to see things all his life that the glasses would not be simple, immediate help. He would have to learn to let them help him see.
He was not excited about this change at all. Until, that is, we sat down and opened a book.
Liam has always loved books. As soon as he became mobile, he would crawl, then walk, into our laps with a book in his hand. He memorized stories and “helped” read as soon as he was able to speak.
So, when I opened this book in front of Liam with glasses on, he immediately began calling out letters, spelling the words on the page.
My heart warmed to be able to witness the experience. I waited a minute or so to start reading so that we could simply enjoy this exciting new experience.
He had had no idea what he wasn’t able to see, until, with the help of glasses, he became able to see!
General Conference, the quadrennial meeting of the United Methodist Church, begins today in Portland, Oregon. If you are United Methodist, you no doubt know there are some very, very contentious matters to be faced. This is no exaggeration, and is truer now than it was four year ago at the last General Conference: the future of our denomination may be dramatically changed by decisions made over the next 10 days in Portland.
My prayer for all of the delegates is that they would seek God. I pray they will treat one another with the love and respect followers of Jesus show for one another. I pray for discernment and for clarity.
And I pray that all will be willing to admit that they may not have been able to see clearly before.
Because sometimes you don’t know how poorly you were able to see things until you get some help from outside yourself.
This picture did it. Threw me across the line I’ve been toeing for several days, if not weeks.
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
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!