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!
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 fourth question:
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?
Wesley knew better than to think that spirituality, or following Jesus, was simply a matter of spending time each day in prayer and bible study. He knew that following Jesus would affect every area of our lives: including the way we dress, our choice of friends, where and how we work, and habits we hold on to.
But the wording of this question reminds us that neither is following Jesus only about shopping at different stores, befriending a different group of people, etc. The beginning of the question is as important to the disciple of Jesus as the ending: “Am I a slave…?”
In John 8:31-32 Jesus said “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Following Jesus sets us free from all matters of bondage, including things like clothing, friends, work, and habits.
Perhaps the most basic way this question challenges us to grow is in facing the truth that everyone who follows Jesus doesn’t look exactly like us. They won’t all dress the same, have the same friends, work the same jobs, or have exactly the same habits.
I’m reminded of a story told by a deeply faithful Free Methodist college Professor. His young adult daugther was in a relationship with a young man of the Dutch Reformed tradion. Unlike the Free Methodists, Dutch Reformed do not carry the same social taboos on alcohol and tobacco.
Knowing the young man to be a committed Christian nevertheless, this professor told me how he and his wife sought to reach out across such different practices. If their daughter was serious about him, they would make every effort. They invited him to join them at the symphony.
The young man graciously declined. “While I very much appreciate the invitation, I would never dream of doing such a thing on the sabbath,” he told them.
When we find ourselves enslaved to some social particulars, we might set up barriers that keep us from fellowship, and that can poorly represent our Lord.
Dress, friends, work, and habits matter. They matter deeply. But they are not lord of our lives. That place is reserved for Jesus.
“Put Jesus first.” I feel like I hear this a lot. The scripture that has informed our current sermon series, Colossians 1:15-20, supports this directive. It says, after all, in verse 18
He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
But what does “putting Jesus first” look like?
In our society, people who “get to go first” don’t have to stand in line like everyone else. They receive protection from all the normal people; they can have guards and gates and get ushered to the front row or the luxury boxes.
Not only was Jesus NOT treated this way; there is no indication that Jesus ever sought to be treated this way. In fact, I’m reminded that he said that “Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— just as the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Matthew 20:27-28)
Jesus WAS the head, the firstborn from among the dead. He DOES and WILL occupy the first place among everything. He was also so secure in his relationship with God that he felt no need to act like it, or to show it off. In fact, he emptied himself, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)
May you and I, and all who are trying to follow Jesus, be secure enough in our relationship with God that we, too, might not seek to be recognized as first, or as more important than others. May we follow the way of Jesus – and, in doing so, we’ll find we are putting Jesus first.
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)
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.
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.