This is sermon 2 in the Branded series at Euless First United Methodist Church.
Retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon once told this story about the merging of two Annual Conferences in South Carolina. These were, by the way, not geographic areas being merged, but, rather, racially segregated conferences.
However antiquated it might sound, Methodism in the South was not much faster than the surrounding culture to bridge racial divides. But it did happen, and it happened several years ago now. Willimon’s story began with the committee charged with organizing the first united gathering for these two conferences.
I imagine the meeting started slowly, quietly, intensely. I suppose everyone at the table (I assume they met around a table) was eager for this merger to work, yet uncertain about the future. Cautious, yet hopeful. “We’ve never worked this closely with ‘them’ before,” both teams likely felt, but left unsaid.
So, one of the white men began with a goodwill gesture, inviting any of the black men to share, “Would you tell us how you all have organized your annual conference meeting?”
“Surely,” one of them replied. “We would begin with a rousing opening worship service on Sunday evening. Then, Monday morning, we would start the day early with a devotional time and then follow with a worship service celebrating what God had done in the past year. By the time that finished, we would receive an address from the Bishop, then adjourn for lunch. Following lunch we would gather again for a worship service….”
At this point he was interrupted, respectfully, by one of the white men, “But did you ever get around to the business of the annual conference?”
“What IS the business of the Annual Conference?” came back a question that we ought all take to heart, especially when we get heady about what great things we are going to plan or organize or do for God.
What IS the business of Euless First United Methodist Church? What business are we in?
Last week we focused on The Brand We All Share. This brand we all share is the story of God’s love and faithfulness and it we are reminded of it every time we see a human – another person, or ourselves in a mirror, because we are all created in God’s image. Branding, you’ll remember, is not an image or a tune, but a story evoked by an image, song, video, etc.
So, as God’s people, it behooves us to line our lives up with the story that God is telling. God’s story is, briefly:
Act 1: creation – good and very good!
Act 2: sin, brokenness and estrangement in relationships: between people, and between people and God
Act 3: Israel – God raises up a people to represent God, to bless others and to draw them away from their sin, brokenness and estrangement and toward the God who created them
Act 4: Jesus – God’s people having failed to faithfully live in covenant with God to bless others and draw them to God, Jesus becomes the faithful human in and through whom all are offered healing and hope from their sin, brokenness and estrangement from God and each other.
Act 5: Church – Having vanquished sin and death through crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus calls forth a Church, a “called-out people” whom God intends to embody the Kingdom of God already present on earth, here and now.
That is God’s story for us, for all of us; for all of creation.
We are, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, we are here to be ambassadors for Jesus; God is negotiating through us for the lives of everyone!
Even clearer than that, this morning’s gospel reading seems as clear as the air in this room: we are to “go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”
So, with all that in mind, I ask today, What business are we in?
The answer must not be as easy as “making disciples and serving as ambassadors for Jesus.”
What business are we in? Filling the sanctuary? Training children?
Converting people? Saving souls? Accumulating Jesus points? Earning our way into heaven? Building church facilities with snack bars, bowling alleys and shooting ranges so the saved will no longer have to mix with the great unwashed masses?
The United Methodist Church’s mission statement is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
This is our business. Anything that detracts from making disciples is extra. Anything that is not part of making disciples ought to be very carefully considered before we do it as a church.
Does operating a food pantry make disciples of Jesus Christ? Maybe, but not necessarily.
Does going to a Texas Rangers game together after worship make disciples? Maybe, not automatically.
Does having meetings every week make disciples of Jesus? Again, maybe. But 2 hours into a 60 minute meeting I have my suspicions.
Does painting the exterior trim on the sanctuary (it needs it badly, by the way) make disciples of Jesus? Not necessarily – plenty of churches with well maintained facilities close every year.
So, if it is so easy to answer the question, “What business are we in?” why are we so easily distracted and why do we so easily and often fail to keep the main thing the main thing.
The business we are in is making disciples for Jesus Christ. Anything that detracts from that must be open for reconsideration.
Everything thing that detracts from making disciples for Jesus Christ can potentially keep us from making disciples for Jesus Christ.
In fact, it is even more challenging that that: getting our focus off of the complexity of what it means to make disciples is, I would argue, our greatest challenge.
To explain what I mean, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story of wolves and Yellowstone National Park.
For the safety of people and especially of other animals such as deer and elk, wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone National Park in the 1920’s.
In 1974 the grey wolf was included on the list of endangered animals in The Endangered Species Act. A pack of 8 were brought in from Canada and reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.
Whereas it had been thought that eliminating wolves would have improved life for the remaining species (especially elk), we have learned something, well, amazing.
Yes, the number of elk has decreased drastically. Elk reached a peak of about 11,000. Now 11,000 elk was too many for the land. Much of the grassland was overgrazed. Overgrazing led to erosion.
Re-enter the wolf. Elk numbers are down, but grasslands quickly do better. Wolves ate coyotes, so other species that thrive in grasslands that had been coyote food – rabbits and mice – began to flourish. More rabbits and mice meant more foxes and hawks and badgers and weasels. More ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the wolves’ leftovers. Bears fed on these leftovers, too, as well as on the increased production of berries, since the elk population was down.
The elk had not only over grazed grasses in meadows, but also seedling aspen and cottonwood. The reintroduction of wolves actually aided in forest growth – some areas saw the height and thickness of trees quintuple in a decade. More trees meant more beavers, and beavers, like wolves, provide ecosystem boosts to many other animals – muskrats, otters, and ducks and fish.
But this went beyond just other living things. The very health of the rivers in the area was improved. Yes. Wolves saved rivers. Well, not exactly saved rivers. But, the reintroduction of wolves brought back balance to the ecosystem that strengthened the grasslands which meant less erosion which meant healthy, stronger, cleaner rivers.
One aspect of the ecosystem was eliminated, and the entire system was thrown out of balance. Reintroduce that one element, in this case, wolves, and over the space of 20 years, with careful management, of course, the system is restored to balance and the entire system flourishes.
As a disciple of Jesus Christ, your life is an ecosystem. This is as true spiritually as it is biologically.
Your body couldn’t survive long, and life would be horrific to live, were it not for the millions of bacteria and other micro-flora that live off of your body – both all over your skin, and especially inside your digestive system.
This is why healthcare is so challenging: if it were ever so simple as “you need more calcium or potassium or fiber,” how easy life would be!
How do you lose weight? Take in less calories than you burn. But you can’t just stop eating. If you just stop eating, sure, you’ll lose weight, but your body will react and burn less calories until it finds some sort of equilibrium with the calories you are now taking in.
It is just as true for our spiritual lives as our physical or biological lives! Sometimes the story we tell is that all you have to do to be a disciple is pray every day and read your bible every day.
Sometimes we just want people to “make a decision for Jesus,” say the “sinner’s prayer,” and then, like, “poof!” they’re a mature disciple of Jesus.
Other times we make it just about helping people – if you just feed enough poor people or give away enough of your stuff or your money, then God will write your name in the “faithful” category.
Some of us have turned the Golden Rule around – I haven’t done anything bad to anyone, and that’s enough for Jesus!
I have pastored many people from all of these and other perspectives. There are so many ways you and I can reduce what is required to be a disciple to a list – (as short a list as possible, please!) – but they all do the same thing to the ecosystem of our lives as taking wolves out of the equation did to Yellowstone.
We need a fuller, richer version of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ! When we begin to live this fuller, richer version of being a disciple, we find that we are not only being disciples of Jesus Christ, but that we are making disciples of Jesus Christ. And when we are making disciples of Jesus Christ, we create space for God to bring on the transformation of the world.
We are NOT in the business of transforming the world. We are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. If we do that, God will transform the world!
I have served as pastor of many people over the years. One of the things about this work that most often breaks my heart is when someone who, by all accounts has been a faithful member of the church, expresses uncertainty about his or her relationship with God.
So, in case you are one of those persons; in case you have settled for “being a disciple” meaning you should go to church or read your bible every morning or pray every day or give money to the church and a few other good causes or go on a mission trip or collect coats for the elderly or visit the elementary school every week or prisons when you can. Maybe you’ve gotten saved seven times, baptized five, and say the sinner’s prayer every night before you got to sleep, but you still aren’t sure you’re on God’s “approved” list.
Become a disciple. Follow Jesus. Sure, you can “make decisions for Christ,” but if you don’t change some habits and patterns of behavior, what you call a decision is lip service or pandering.
Become a disciple. Start a journey down the road with Jesus. The gospels are a good place to start: how did Jesus interact with other people? What kinds of words did Jesus use? What kinds of people did Jesus hang out with?
Of course, in the gospels, you’ll find this, too: when Jesus sent his disciples off to do something, he never sent them solo. He always sent them in at least pairs. You cannot be a disciple on your own! You need help – help in the form of other human being who are also out to follow Jesus, to be his disciples.
We are in the business of making disciples, and we can only do this by being disciples. There are other ways we could get more people in here. There are other ways we could collect more money, and maybe even other ways we could give more money away. But there are no other ways to be disciples of Jesus.
I close with this fabulously rich point that one of you made recently for me. You accompanied our confirmation class to the Conference Confirmation Celebration. You choose a “breakout session” aimed at helping youth manage themselves on social media. You opened the eyes of my heart once again to the beauty of Philippians 4:8.
Now, to be fair, youth aren’t the only one challenged to behavior themselves well on social media. I’ve seen some of the stuff some of you post, and, well, we older folk have no place to stand to pontificate to adolescents about what they ought to do.
Which is the beauty of your sharing Philippians 4:8 with me. Because Philippians 4:8 just happens to be followed by Philippians 4:9 – great how it works that way, huh? Here’s chapter 4 verse 8, shared at this breakout session as a good guiding principle for what you share on social media:
From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.
How great is that! How might our perspective, our openness to God, and our vision of the divine be increased, and how might our bitterness, our pettiness, our small-mindedness be decreased, if we focus our thoughts on “anything that is excellent, admirable, true, holy, just, pure, lovely, worthy of praise! This isn’t just for youth; this is for anyone who would be a disciple!
Which brings me to verse 9, and the power of quoting verse 8 to a bunch of youth. Here is verse 9: Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
WHEN you are willing to say to someone, “practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us,” THEN you are a disciple, and THEN you will find you are making disciples!
And making disciples is the business we are in!
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!
Barack Obama has removed his membership from Trinity United Church of Christ, where he had been a member for 20 years. The primary reason, of course, is to separate himself from the caustic remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the long-time pastor at Trinity.
Here’s what I wonder about all this: who are Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s pastors? In what churches do they hold membership?
It is fairly obvious at this point that whoever might be the pastor to Ms. Clinton and Mr. McCain, these clergy have managed not to say the kinds of things Rev. Wright has said.
But what have they said? Is it acceptable for a pastor to say anything short of what Wright said? Well, not quite. McCain has distanced himself from John Hagee and Rod Parsley, for having said, among other things, that God sent Hilter to help the Jews return to Israel.
But who are McCain’s and Clinton’s pastors, and what do they stand for? I think these are every bit as relevant, if not as newsworthy as Obama’s (now former) pastor.
Being that I have acknowledged that I have become The Man, I’ve got some changes to make.
First and foremost, I’ve got to give up on, set aside, put away, the bitterness that so easily infects me.
It is easy for me to see and sharply, usually sarcastically, comment on all that is wrong with church, society, my denomination, my country, you name it.
But, cliché though it it may be, I am either part of the problem or part of the solution.
As long as I am bitter and jaded about, for instance, the institution of The United Methodist Church, I am not part of the solution.
I am getting serious about this. Serious enough that House isn’t as entertaining to me as it used to be.
This was in a letter to the editor in yesterday’s Waco Tribune-Herald by Shelby Lynn Muhl:I’m acquainted with many self-described Christians, including a number of fatuous “born-agains.” Only one actually tries to follow the instructions of Jesus and avoids judging others.
I have to think the ratio is higher than Ms. Muhl alleges, I have to admit she has a point. She goes on to point out that “The rest are deeply addicted to Mammon. One couple I know actually prays for money and entreats friends to second the motion. They also openly mock the poor.”
She’s right! Oh, sure, she paints with a very broad brush, but do we as followers of Jesus have any reply but to admit that her allegations are all too true – that we who claim the name of Jesus have a long, deep history of not representing him very well?
What can we do to change the perception?
- Those of us who are appalled at this representation of Christians have to come clean. We must refuse to hide our claims to Jesus to avoid being lumping in with “all those hypocrites.:
- We can invite those who are fond of pointing out the hypocrisy of Christians to watch us, come along side us, and look with us at how Jesus calls us to live.
- We can ask the Holy Spirit for the strength and courage to live like Jesus.
What else can we do?
Here’s a great piece from the The Emergent Manifesto of Hope:
Every person needs one safe place where he or she is able to stop pretending, a place of ruthless honesty and unconditional love where no one is allowed to fly underneath the radar.
“Jailhouse Faith” by Thomas Malcolm Olson (p.95)
So, brief post that this is, share with me (us) some ideas about how we get the church from where it is to this place described by Olson?