The BRAND we all share

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.BrandedHere is the first sermon from the series, preached Sunday morning, April 17, 2016. weekone

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.CocaCola

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!

Do you know what you think?

At Euless First UMC we have been on a Long and Winding Road since late August. This has been my sermon series, but it has also been an effort to get people to share their stories with one another.

I contend that coming to terms with one’s own faith story is the best exercise for sharing one’s faith.  Sure, being able to argue someone under the table may convince them you are right (or at least that you are a better arguer).  Being able to recite theories, scriptures, or proofs of God’s existence may also win attention. But unless and until your life offers something deep, lasting, and real about the God you claim to worship and follow, I’m afraid those around you are left with words and ideas, but not life.

On the way to thinking through one’s faith story, I have suggested 4 different forms:

  1. Your Story in 6 words: modeled after that famous short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
  2. Tweet version: Your Story in 140 characters (or less)
  3. Elevator Pitch: something you can say in 30-45 seconds that leaves the listener wanting to know more, and
  4. Long Form – 300-500 words:  (I know some don’t consider this long) Your Story in a page or two.

I have completed mine, and will be sharing them here over the next few days.

But before we get there, I had this thought as I sat down to begin to share these different versions of my story: until I thought about my life in an intentional way, it wasn’t really a story, but just rambling thoughts.

Which led me to the heading of this post: Do you know what you think? Whether it is your story or a football game you watched over the weekend; whether you tell your story in the context of God’s larger story or not, until you stop and consider what it is you think, you don’t really know.

It might seem obvious that one knows what one thinks – in general, or about any specific topic – until one can communicate it somehow to another person, I am not sure that he or she really does know what he or she thinks.

Do you know what you think?  Could you tell me in a way that I understand?

We’re right there with you, Miley

Here I am, a week after all the other bloggers have had their say on the Miley Cyrus at the VMAs incident. I can’t say I have followed it all closely enough to comment.  I didn’t watch the VMAs and never have.  It’s not that I am opposed to music or music videos; they (music videos) have just never hooked me.

But when I saw this  this morning, I was intrigued, so I read it.  I wasn’t drawn in my the f word, nor will include it here.  The quote that got me, and that sprung “blog fodder” into my head, was this:

everyone does dumb stuff when they are messed up.

Yes, everyone does.  We are all right there with you, Miley.

Of course, few of us have lived most of our lives in the celebrity spotlight.  There are other details about your life that some of my readers will know because they grew up “with” you in a sense.

In the interview you gave, you acknowledge that your life has been very messed up.  While I likely cannot imagine the degree and specifics therein, I can empathize. I, too, have lived a very messed up life.

And here is where some want me to say something like: “then I gave my heart to Jesus and everything got better.”

Well, kinda.

Ok, not really.  Right after I gave my heart to Jesus things did get better.  But the shine wore off and had, for a couple of decades, and life that looked great but was still rather messed up.

What turned it around?  a couple of things, honestly.  First, therapy.  I admitted to myself that I needed professional help and found it is a therapist I could trust. Second, I began to live more honestly and openly in relationship with the community of people I had around me.

These people were my church. So, yes; to those of you who thought I shrugged off Jesus a couple of paragraphs above, I do credit Jesus for the community in which I have, over the past 15 or so years, been learning to deal with and find healing for, all the “messed up” aspects of my life.

Simply put, Miley: we ALL do dumb stuff when we are messed up, and we are all, or at least have been, messed up.

Here’s hoping and praying you don’t wait until your mid 30s to take on the work of finding healing.

A Reason for Hope?

I’ve just finished my latest read for the SpeakEasy Blogger review network.  The book is Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined: an unconventional spiritual journey. It was a very enjoyable read; I recommend it.  Because Christian Apologetics is one of the main topics dealt with in this novel, I want to deal with this before posting my actual review.

For the uninitiated, apologetics is not about saying one is sorry, but about defending one’s faith. The word apologia, from which apologetics is derived, means to give “words about;” to answer or explain something.

Many Christian Apologists root their apologetics in 1 Peter 3:15 which says

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect[.]

Many of the debates that Christians enter into with atheists or evolutionists or people of other religions are understood and described by the Christian invovled as being apologetic.  They tend to be logical, rational, or at least rhetorical presentations of evidence and philosophical points.

Here is my question:  how are rhetorical skills and debate tactics equated with giving a reason for  “hope that you have”?  The hope I have as a follower of Jesus cannot begin to be grasped by eloquent arguments or well framed premises and conclusions.  The hope I have, the hope that is “in me” )in the King James version of the 1 Peter passage) is a living, ongoing relationship with God that I have found available through Jesus Christ.

Arguments don’t offer hope.  They may (or may not) offer answers.  Answers are not hope!

What kind of Church is that?

In correspondence with another pastor last week, I read his description of his congregation as “a conservative church.”

While I understood what he meant (I think), this really made the wheels turn in my head.  I could, perhaps, so characterize every church I have served in the past as either “conservative” or “liberal.”  [our correspondence was about American politics, so I am referring to American political labels “conservative” and “liberal.”]  The more I think about all this, though, the less helpful it seems to me to identify a church, a congregation, a representation of the Body of Christ, with one political label or another.

You can argue that this trait of Jesus is “conservative” or “liberal” but these labels as they occur in 2012 do not translate directly to Jesus’ day.  This means that, generally, they are not helpful in doing what we who follow Jesus are called to do, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Except, of course, the one political label that I believe all Christians ought to proudly wear – that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

I hope this, the Lordship of Jesus, is the political message members, visitors, outsiders, and passersby get from the Church I pastor.

 

 

Actual or Percieved Boundaries?

I work in Euless, Texas.  I live nearby; my mailing address says I live in Hurst, but my house is actually within the city limits of Fort Worth.

In the four months since we moved, we have found that none of the boundaries between these three cities makes much difference day-to-day.  There are different taxing entities, different access to services (usually based on the taxing entity). There are taxing entities (Tarrant County, Tarrant County College system, etc.) that include each of these.  So far has I have noticed, and I have even asked a variety of people, there is no noticeable preferential treatment or discrimination based on where one lives.

On the other hand, not far to my east is Irving.  I don’t know all that much about Irving, but I have found that the Irving version of some stores or services is closer to where I work than the next closest store or service of the same kind to my west.

Irving, though, is across the county line and on the other side of the DFW airport and highway 360.

Something about the way the DFW metroplex has developed, I have noticed that this perceived boundary between the Dallas side and the Fort Worth side is really quite real.

I am trying to figure this out. At the same time, I realize that I live within other boundaries that are more based on perception than reality.  Architectural style, age of  neighborhood, proximity to a WalMart (among others) that some might perceive as establishing boundaries.

Are you aware of the boundaries within which you tend to live?  Which of them are actual, which are perceived?