I have been gamified

Screenshot_20180423-093933Gamification is a thing. Does it belong in church, in the life of Jesus’ disciples?

To the left is a screenshot of gamification in action. My favorite bible app, Youversion, offers this kind of encouragement to open the app daily.

I have to admit, this works on me.  You might notice that, according to the screenshot, my longest streak was, at the time, 51 days.

Youversion is not the only place I go to read the Bible.

Gamification isn’t subtle, but it isn’t judging, either. I have to tell you, as I see the “current” number climb, I am a bit more encouraged to remember to open the app.

Some may think this is improper motivation to read the Bible.  To them I say, guilty as charged.

Screenshot_20180627-075216_Bible

I shouldn’t need the minor dopamine hit of seeing numbers climb and occasional stars flying across the screen to “reward” me for opening the app. I shouldn’t need any outer motivation at all to open the Bible and read it.

But sometimes I do. And sometimes it is just enough of a reminder that, having then opened the scriptures, my motivations about other things for the rest of the day are improved.

I think I might like the idea of gamification after all.

 

Thoughts and Prayers

ringing-icon-on-a-mobile-phone-showing-smartphone-call_fkJ4m7vd.jpgOver the years, I have gotten to the place where I don’t blog in a reactionary way as I once did. But the school shooting in Florida last week has gotten me thinking.

Ok, that’s not exactly right. The Parkland High school shooting has gotten me praying and thinking – trying to find something to do besides praying and thinking. yes, I have been praying and thinking about what do to beyond praying and thinking.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, I hear a cell phone notification tone during Young Disciples Time at our 8:30 am worship service. It wasn’t too loud; actually, not really loud enough to be distracting.

But loud enough to get me thinking.

You see, I was already determined to focus the pastoral prayer that morning on inviting God to challenge us, God’s people, followers of Jesus, to do something as a response to the incredible rise of school shootings.

We need to pray, this is beyond question. But it seems that at times like this – especially as there are SO MANY times like this! – to say we should pray can become a cop out.

“Well, I’ve prayed, I don’t know what else I can do!” we might be tempted to say.

And then the notification tone. Which, of course, made me check my phone. It wasn’t on silent!  I quickly, simply, silently, switched it to silent.

I did not pray and ask God to silence my phone.

That would have been missing the point entirely of God having created us in God’s own image and calling us into partnership for stewarding creation.

I can, of course, pray and ask God to help me remember to silence my phone. But it makes little sense to leave such a thing to making a request of God when there is something I can do.

So: I don’t know exactly what we are going to do as Americans about the tragedy of school shootings, but I know prayer can’t be all we do.

We must at least remember, as we pray, that prayer is communication between us and God.

We talk, God listens.

God talks, we listen.

Not always necessarily in this order.  ( we who recognize prevenient grace would likely have to admit that some of the times we pray we pray in response to the Holy Spirit’s urging.)

When we dare pray about school shootings, I feel pretty confident God is going to answer us.

Are we ready to hear what God has to say? I don’t know for sure. But I do know that if by “praying” I mean “tell God how bothered you are about ______ and leave it up to God to fix it,” I’ve not actually come to grips with what prayer is.

IncarnATE 2.0

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
Christmas Eve Sermon, Dec. 24, 2017

A long long time ago in a pastoral appointment far, far away….

There was a bible. Actually, there were a lot of bibles. That church, not unlike this church and almost every other church, had invested in a bunch of bibles. I don’t know if “bunch” is the technically correct group term for Bibles. You know, like gaggle of geese, pride of lions, congress of crows or committee of vultures (You gotta love those last 2!).

Anyway, this church had quite a few bibles. A pantsload of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload. You get the idea.

One of these bibles, at least only 1 to my knowledge, had an error.

I’m not talking doctrine here. Get your mind out of the theological gutter.

I mean the cover was put on backwards. And, therefore, upside down.

Which, I don’t mind telling you, was more than a little frustrating, at least for me, when I’d open it to read it.

I know, plenty of us read the bible on your phones now, and your phone has this little thingamabob called an accelerometer. The accelerometer is what turns the screen the right way when you, maybe, pick your phone up upside down to read the bible.

This bible that I’m talking about didn’t have an accelerometer.

So, you know how sometimes youth find things funny that other people might not think are funny? And you know how sometimes youth have this built-in alert system that catches all us adults when we do something that we would ordinarily tell youth they shouldn’t do?

Well, here’s how that works. With a totally hypothetical story:

Just say, maybe, you were the pastor at a church that had bibles. Bunches of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload of bibles. And 1 of those bibles had an error.

YES, I still mean that the cover was applied backwards. And upside down. Come on!

And just say that, as the pastor, you were, one night, leading a youth bible study, and happened to pick up this particular bible and open it to read from it.

And it didn’t have an accelerometer in it, so you opened it upside down when you thought it was right side up.

And then imagine, because, again, this is all hypothetical, that before you stopped to think about it, you slammed the book shut and tossed it across the table.

And then imagine you said something. Something you might regret as the words were coming out of your mouth.

Something like, “I hate this book!”

Again, this is all hypothetical. Except that it actually happened. I was there. I saw it.

Yep; that pastor? That was me.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

So those youth had caught me, their pastor, saying, about a bible, “I hate this book!”

I am SO thankful I had enough of a relationship with those kids that they laughed it off. They knew I didn’t actually mean that about the bible.

And for the rest of my years there, they never let me forget about it!

And you might wonder why I would tell you that story tonight, on Christmas Eve.

I told you that story because I think it can help us understand the scripture for tonight.

The Christmas story. You might say it is Luke’s Christmas story, which would be true, but perhaps misleadingly so – Luke is the only one with an actual Christmas story.

Matthew comes close, telling us about how the angel appeared Joseph (we don’t get Mary’s side of the story at all), then skipping to “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem….”

Luke gives us the details. But do we really want details? I mean, we don’t need the bible for details; we make up our own! Many of us include the wise men in the story, though they appear in Matthew, not in Luke, and came looking for the babe as much as two years after the birth.

But, really: who wants a 2 year long Christmas pageant?

So: we usually end up reading in one of two ways. The first is like this. https://youtu.be/suowe2czxcA

The second is like this: https://youtu.be/BqpJvey-7-s

I worry that we make Christmas either a sappy, sentimental thing for kids or a anachronistic stepping stone on the way to something else.
Honestly, I don’t think, and there is no indication, Mary felt very sappy. Giving birth is hard work – I’ve witnessed it!  And when Rachel was about to deliver Eliza, one of our favorite songs came up on the playlist we’d curated for the morning.

I lovingly and gently pointed it out. Rachel, in the process of delivering her first child and having had no pain killer, wasn’t feeling “loving” or “gentle.” In retrospect, I can’t blame her.

Pretty sure Mary wasn’t in the mood for hosting a “live nativity scene” either. Doubtful that was a silent night.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Christmas Pageants. But, folks,  This incarnation thing isn’t JUST that.

There’s one thing that probably did happen that first Christmas that I’ve seen at most live nativity scenes. At least the one with animals. Instead of just standing there like a petting zoo, the donkey, or one of the sheep,, will likely relieve itself just when you don’t want it to.

Hey, donkey, that wasn’t in the script!

Which brings me to another point. We tend to read the Christmas story like it was a stage production. As if Luke’s gospel had been written in heaven from the foundation of the world, and finally, here and now, Mary, check, Joseph, check, Bethlehem, check. Places, folks – and – action!

Luke is telling the story after it unfolded, not writing the script for how it was to unfold.

Which leads me to George Washington in the Dodge Challenger. That’s a different kind of in car nation.

We tend to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as though it only really happened so that he could die on the cross about 33 years later.

That’s getting the story out of order and reading something that happened later in history onto an event that happened before it.

Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world.  But that “slain from the foundation of the world,” a phrase we get from Rev 13:8, is more a reference to the character of God than to an event that happened.

In other words, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t a story about what happened to Jesus, but about who Jesus is.

Jesus, God incarnate – that is, in human flesh, is a God who suffers at the hands of the powers of the world.

Jesus, born an innocent, fragile baby, is another picture, at the other end of his earthly life, that tells us the same thing about God. That God comes to us, that God’s hope for saving the world, come powerless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of those created in God’s very image.

At this end of the story, vulnerable, powerless God receives care and love and attention. Born to a lowly woman – a woman who has powerful introspective and reflective thoughts. If you doubt it, check back into 1:46-55, or  you catch it here in verse 19: “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”

What God was doing in that first Christmas God has been doing since the creation of the world, and God continues to do today. Tonight. In the morning.

You remember, don’t you, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the ONE TREE God had told them not to eat? God comes walking in the garden (do you worship a God who takes walks in a garden?), and they hide because they are “naked and ashamed.” God calls out, “Adam, where are you?”

Like God didn’t know?

No: like God is a god who comes to us, a god who came to the world God had created, as humbly and vulnerable and powerless as possible.

Because you love someone, you don’t approach them in power. You approach them humbly and with vulnerability and powerless as possible.

And that’s the way the Bible actually tells the story. My prayer is that tonight, and in the morning, you and I will hear it that way.

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
S

FrustrATE to DecorATE

First message in our Advent Series:Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden tableI was on the phone the other day with a customer service rep. I don’t remember what it was about, but that doesn’t really matter, does it?

The CSR was handling the issue very well. So well, in fact, that it was one of those things that, even if I couldn’t get the outcome I wanted, I would have to have admitted I was treated very well.

Except that I ALWAYS opt out of those “brief survey at the end of this call” things. I don’t trust myself to be mature about them.

So everything is going along swimmingly, when she says, “the Mrs.” As in “you and the Mrs.”

Wait, what?

I’m pretty sure I’ve never referred to Rachel as “the Mrs.” I don’t think I’m opposed to the term, or offended by it, but it strikes me as a bit quaint and antiquated.

And some of you are probably wondering, “Well, Steve, if you weren’t bothered or offended by it, WHY do you still remember it?”

Good question. Sometimes I am so easily distracted!

I am learning (finally!) what some of my buttons are. For example, when I hear anyone disparage young people simply because they are young, I pull out my soapbox and let loose.

I suppose it comes from memorizing 1 Tim 4:12 as a youth: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”

I memorized it in King James English.

So; if you disparage youth, I am going to react. If you blame the problems of the world today, or even the problems of youth today, on youth, I’m probably going to go off.

There I am, distracted again! (Squirrel!)

So. Anyway. Where were we?

Oh, yeah: Mark 13:24-37.

Apocalypse!

Many of us are distracted by apocalyptic writing.The destruction, the vivid imagery, the dire tone all play well to our media-and-entertainment-and-cgi-engulfed culture.

We get so caught up in the vivid imagery that we miss the message.

Apocalyptic was (or is?) a style of writing in the bible. We find it in several places in the OT, three of the gospels, and, of course, Revelation.

Originally, “apocalyptic” meant “revealing.” It comes from the greek word “apocaluptein” which means, literally, “uncover.”

It has come to mean, though, “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.”
“resembling the end of the world; momentous or catastrophic.”

How did it come to this?

Because, I think, we are both easily distracted and quickly frustrated.

Does talk about the end of the world frustrate you?

Does graphic imagery about the end of the world frustrate you?

You may be thinking that it excites you, rather than frustrates you.  That’s ok, and I’m not out to make sure everyone is frustrated, but have you considered this:

This morning’s text, Mark’s account of Jesus’ apocalyptic Olivet Discourse is approaching 2,000 years old. And, within this morning’s reading is this: I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. (verse 30).

So, whatever Jesus is talking about has already happened.

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. Some of you already have all your decorations up and your shopping done. Some of you don’t bother with decorations and have barely given shopping a thought.

And, besides the lights and trees and angels and sleighs and mangers, besides the Black Friday onslaught and Cyber Monday and exchanging Christmas wish lists, there’s all the parties. And the family gatherings.

And this probably isn’t new, but my memory didn’t hold it from before, but the internet is offering us ways to have decent family conversations at our family gatherings.

While I don’t remember that, I do remember a time, almost 30 years ago now, actually having this thought: “I hate Christmas.”

It was my 2nd year out of seminary, my first on the staff of a church large enough to have an associate pastor. I was that associate pastor.

There was so much going on!  And I don’t mean just so much going on at the church – though there’s plenty of that! – there is so much going on in church, in family, in family finances, and if all that weren’t enough the year is coming to a close AND the way we’ve decided to situate all this, days are growing shorter as we approach Christmas, and the increased darkness naturally dulls our moods and dims our outlook.

What a frustrating combination!

While we sing this is the “most wonderful time of the year,” some of us cannot wait for it to be over!

So, what is the Christian response? Maybe, “suck it up” works in your family, but that’s not a message that I think resonates with people.

In fact, no. Maybe you were always, or often told to “suck it up” when you were younger, but that’s not how Jesus approached people who were frustrated or hurting.

So that’s not how we are going to approach people who are frustrated or hurting.

Jesus didn’t tell this story, this apocalyptic story, this end-of-the-age story intending to frustrate his disciples, but, rather to give them hope.

Advent isn’t intended to be frustrating, but a time to build hope toward a celebration of Immanuel, God WITH us, God incarnate in human form!

If you hate this time of year, this series is especially for you. If you love this time of year; you have already worked through all your frustrations, or, perhaps, you don’t have any, I want this series to be for you as well.  

Today, in our efforts to follow Jesus better today than yesterday, and to prepare our hearts, our minds, and our souls for celebrating Christmas, I invite you to move from frustrATE to decorATE.

Though we are distracted by the vivid imagery of Jesus’ words in Mark 13, if we can take a breath and step back, we see that he closes with what is really important – with what he wants his disciples to take away from the session.

“Stay Alert!”

How can we stay alert if we aren’t already alert?  What if we are so distracted by the apocalyptic language – and maybe frustrated either that we don’t understand it or that it hasn’t happened yet, that we can’t get to alert?

Here’s a hint about what Jesus was talking about. Did you catch how in verse 35 Jesus says,

Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak.

There’s that pattern evening, midnight, early morning, or when the rooster crows,and at daybreak. Mark repeats the pattern in the following chapter: 14:17, Jesus begins the Last Supper with the disciples in the “evening.” then, in the garden, Jesus goes to pray and comes back to find them sleeping. Why? It was this middle of the night. Third, Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him when the rooster crows. Finally, Jesus is taken before Pilate in the morning.

Something about the pattern of the end that Jesus tells us about in 13 is mirrored perfectly in the events leading to his death in the following chapters!

Some of what Jesus was talking about, some of what he was encouraging his followers to “stay alert” for, was about to happen.

For whatever else remains, you and I join the original followers of Jesus in expectation and anticipation. And frustration. We want Jesus to come and finish the job!

Can you admit that Jesus frustrates you? Have you had a conversation with God recently in which you’ve expressed – or shouted – how frustrated you are when or if things don’t work out the way you thought they should – the way it seemed clear as day God wanted them to turn out?

Frustration is a theme in Mark’s Gospel… Every time Jesus heals someone, he tells them, “Don’t tell anyone.”  In fact, in chapter 9, in Mark’s version of Jesus’ “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Passage, when Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him!

And, right after that, Jesus starts teaching them that he must suffer. And die.

In expected Peter fashion, Mark tells us, Peter “scolds Jesus.”

Jesus tells Peter, “get behind me,” and concludes the teaching with this:

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. [(‘take up your cross’ didn’t mean have people look at you funny if you bow to pray over your meal at a restaurant. It certainly didn’t mean face the abject persecution of having someone say “happy holidays” rather than Merry Christmas!” ‘Take up your cross’ meant, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, that “Jesus bids us come and die.”)]

Welcome to frustrATE!

In response, I invite you to decorATE.

I don’t mean to take a second mortgage out on your house to try to win the HOA’s Christmas decoration contest.

Our HOA gives offers up to 5 $100 prizes for best decorations in the development. Several of our neighbors spend at least a couple hundred each year in pursuit of a $100 gift card.

That’s not what I mean by decorate.

Here’s what I mean: find a way, make a way, to inhabit the world you inhabit. Make the time, the effort to be still and know that God is God.

The point of decorating is not to win contests or gift cards. The point of decorating is to oo and aw. To have the space around you settle you, suggest peace, help you just to be.

Can you just BE this close to Christmas?

I am coming to learn that I am not very good at just BEing. Well, I’ve known for years I’m not good at BEing. I’ve come to learn relatively recently part of the reason, and part of the solution.

I don’t decorate.

From my earliest days of living on my own, I’ve had little to no sense of style or decoration. Ok; honestly, I’ve had little to no sense of being willing to spend any money at all to support a sense of decoration.

If it were left to me, all the walls of our house would be the same color – whatever color they were when we moved in.

One of them would have a picture on it. Because that’s all the wall art I had ever actually purchased.

It’s an Ansel Adams print. His Mount McKinley Range, Denali National Park picture.

I saw it once and was blown away at the majesty. First thing I saw was the mountain range across the bottom. Any mountains look big in texas, right? And the clouds floating over them. Then, and it took me a second to catch it, then you see the next level of mountains, snowcapped, rising behind and above that coastal range.

Then you see – or then I saw, THE MOUNTAIN shrouded in clouds, rising as high as the clouds themselves.

Seeing that, pondering that, decorating one wall with that gives me some perspective on how small I am and how big God is.

And that helps me BE.

I don’t know how much decoration you need to help you be. I am pretty sure it doesn’t require your bankrupting yourself. In fact, a lesson from the Psalmist, and a lesson this Ansel Adams print would tell me if I took the time, is that creation – the natural world around me – might be decoration enough to draw me back, out of my frustration, to a place I can recognize God.

I got home from running an errand last Saturday and tried to get seamlessly back into putting up Christmas decorations. We had arrived home about 6 the night before, from a great week away for Thanksgiving. I had a long, slow run, longer than I’d run in several months. Just before the errand I had gotten out the trees that replace the hibiscuses that stand watch at our front door. So I brought in the groceries, put them away, and went back out through the garage. I went that way on purpose because next on my agenda was to replace the autumnal doormat at the front door with the one we had put in the garage.

So, I picked it up, went out the garage, turned the corner, and was reaching down to pick up the matt as I turned, and noticed there was a brand new doormat there already!

So I went and asked Rachel, as I often do, when we had gotten that.

When we were at Aldi a month or so ago, You and I. Together. Shopping. And we saw that mat, and we talked about how worn out ours was. And we decided, together, to buy it.

Even when there is decoration, I can miss it!

Probably because I am so easily distractible and too quickly frustrated.

Don’t frustrATE

decorATE.

Catch yourself running ragged and BE. Notice creation. Look for beauty. Slow down.

So decorATE. DecorATE your soul with peace that passes understanding, even at this time of year.

Loving Las Vegas

A hand reaching out of a puddle in the forest.I’ve never been to Vegas, but after the mass shooting there last night, they’ve been on my mind and heart this morning. Enough that I posted this to Facebook this morning:

Praying for #LasVegas, and for a country that can seemingly agree on nothing except that we should pray.
Maybe that’s the best place to start.

Of course, sharing such a sentiment gets “likes” and positive comments.

And, then I read this post from my friend Jared Slack:

the fact there we’re all secretly hoping Stephen Paddock (Vegas shooter) is a by-product of our political/religious rivals is the problem.

After that bounced around in me for a while, I realized a potential shortcoming of my post.

I left it too easy for us to end up just praying for the other. Sure, “others” like victims, victim’s families, friends, residents of Las Vegas, the shooter and his family, friends, etc.

But if all we all agree to do is pray like that, for the other, whoever the other might be, I think we give in to remaining caught in this tragic cycle of simply agreeing to pray.

What if we moved a step further?

What if we invited God, in our prayers, to help us see the steps we, ourselves, can make beyond the impasse of only agreeing that we can and should pray?

If we remain in our place, disagreeing with so many others about so much, and only willing to agree to pray, I believe we find ourselves in the place of the Pharisee in this story from Luke 18

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

I hereby commit to continuing to pray for Las Vegas, victims, victim’s families and friends, Stephen Paddock, his family and loved ones.

I further commit to finding, meeting, interacting, and listening to some of the “others.” for whom I am praying. Let’s call this reaching out.

When I reach out, the place for me to reach out from is the recognition that something or some things about me and the way I view and move in the world might be part of the problem.

I am reaching out not only to help, but for help.

2017 version of Community Bathrooms

community bath 1 (2).jpgIn 1982, I made a conscious decision to move away from a dorm with semi-private bathrooms to a dorm with community bathrooms on each floor.

And I never looked back.  Ok; the bathroom set up wasn’t the reason I chose the other dorm (It helped they had installed air-conditioning over the summer).

Community was different in dorms with community baths.  Not in a creepy way, but in a way that comes sui generis from sharing tiolet, shower, shaving, washing space with a larger number of people.

We had challenges from time to time. I don’t actually remember having my stuff stolen while I was in the shower, but it may have happened. I also don’t remember stealing anyone else’s stuff while they showered. That may have happened, too.

But what I do remember happening was the shared vulnerability of such common spaces had the effect of each of us treating one another with at least a modicum of respect.

So, as a few of us chatted over coffee this morning, and remembered the days of community-bathroomed dorms, someone said, “I bet they don’t have those any more.”

Oh, but we do.

I don’t know if colleges do, but I contend that social media is the community bathroom of 2017. Except that, not realizing it, many of us have not yet learned to treat others with the modicum of respect deserved when an eclectic and random (you might have chosen your roommate, but you didn’t chose who got to live on the floor)

It took us some time to adapt to sharing the space of the community bathroom.

But not as long as you’ve been on social media!

Does God agree with you? with me?

20160617_144150In the face of all the many disagreements, and further, in the face of what seems to be a lack of ability to communicate in civil and well-intentioned ways, I thought this morning of these words from Isaiah 55:8-9
My plans aren’t your plans,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways,
    and my plans than your plans. (CEB)
Do you suppose that when God says, in Isaiah 55, that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, God is referring to everyone? I have to admit that my usual first read of that passage is that God is referring to my enemy/opponent/anyone who disagrees with me.
 
To be fair, though, I have to admit, though it sometimes takes me a while, that God is, in fact, saying this to ALL of us.
 
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not have a second thought on my agenda for which this is the setup. Not that I never operate that way, but I am not this time)

What is our product?

weekfive.jpgSermon #5 in our Branded Series. This sermon concludes the series.

Branded

“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)

and

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!

 

Who are our customers?

Sermon #3 in our Branded series, preached Sunday, May 1 at Euless First United Methodist Church

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“I gave you a $20. You gave me change for a 10!”

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn working a counter register or the drive-through window at McDonald’s was “The customer is always right.” In this particular case, this is why we were trained to leave the bill or bills the customer gave us lying across the top of the cash drawer until after the exchange was complete.

Honestly, if you were selling $1000 an hour worth of McDonalds in the early 80’s, and we were, it was pretty easy to slip the bill into its slot and move on to counting out the change, and forget if they paid with a $5, a $10, or a $20. And it was pretty easy to miskey the amount tendered.

I’ll just admit this: it was pretty easy to make any of a HUGE variety of mistakes; which, I’m sure, is why every job a crew person could do at McDonald’s was laid out step-by-step.

But, really, “the customer is always right”?  If the customers know that, won’t they all try to take advantage of you?  

Apparently not.  Over the years and thousands of customers, I have no doubt that a few folk intentionally took advantage.  Most, though, were too busy just living their own lives to be constantly looking for ways to cheat or take advantage of others.

(If you feel strongly that everyone, or almost everyone is usually looking for ways to cheat or take advantage of others, I suggest what you are seeing is reflective of something within yourself)

So, this morning, let’s begin with this question, How does ‘the customer is always right’ figure into the metaphor we have been pursuing with this “Branded” sermon series?  

That question begs this additional question: who are our customers?

But, before we get to that, here’s a recap of the first two weeks of the series:  The BRAND we all share is that we are created in God’s very image as reminders for each other, and for ourselves when we look in a mirror, of who our Creator is. Even more than that, the BRAND we all share is God’s story; because a brand is not a picture or logo or song or video: a brand is the story evoked by the picture, logo, song, or video.

So we, as human beings, all bear the image of God, and this image is linked to God’s story. Here is a short version of God’s story (would you understand if I called it the “reader’s digest condensed version?)

Act 1: creation – good and very good! Act 2: sin, Act 3: Israel – God raises up a people to reach all the rest of the people Act 4: Jesus -Jesus becomes the faithful human in and through whom all are offered healing and hope from their sin Act 5: Church – Church is literally a  “called-out people” whom God intends to embody the Kingdom of God already present on earth, here and now.

That’s the Brand we all share.  Last week we built on this by defining the business we are in. We are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ, and we can only make disciples by being disciples. Being a disciple is really pretty straightforward: it is following Jesus.

The more and the more closely we follow Jesus, the more we will come to find ourselves becoming more like Jesus.

So, that’s the Brand we all share, and the business we are in.

Some of you may still be uncomfortable with the branding/business metaphor.  I use this metaphor based on the belief that Jesus taught in metaphors of fishing and shepherding and the like because that was the world he lived in.  I fully believe that if Jesus were here among us today, he would use metaphors that are familiar to us – among them, those of shopping, business, branding, and, though it is still difficult for me to admit this, consumerism.

Sticking with this metaphor, I ask you this morning, if our business is making disciples, then who are our customers?

I want to clarify this: Our business is NOT being disciples, but making them. Abraham’s mission in Genesis 12 was to

“Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
   those who curse you I will curse;
       all the families of the earth
           will be blessed because of you.”  (Genesis 12:1-4)

Likewise, Jesus’ mission is well summed up in this morning’s Gospel reading:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  (John 3:16-17)

And again, as Paul cites in Philippians 2:

Though he was in the form of God,
       he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
       by taking the form of a slave
       and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
       he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
       even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
       and gave him a name above all names,
   so that at the name of Jesus everyone
       in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
       and every tongue confess that
           Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:6-11)

And leading into this magnificent poetry, Paul writes, “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.”

So the customer is “all the families of the earth,” and “the world,” as in “that the world might be saved through him.”

Let me make this clear: like Abraham, Jesus, and Paul, We are NOT the customer.  We once were the customer, but, within this metaphor, we’ve been hired on, and now you and I are at the cash register ready to take people’s orders and do business for our brand.

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on this truth: you and I are NOT the customer!  If we are already disciples of Jesus Christ, then we are no longer the customer.

A brief riff on what it means that we aren’t the customer.  Worship isn’t about what you and I “want.” You and I aren’t the audience in worship, even IF you are a customer – someone who hasn’t yet decided to follow Jesus.

It is too easy for us, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, to get caught up in what we want worship to be, what we think worship ought to be.  But remember, God is the audience of worship, not you and me.  What God wants in worship, what God wants from worship, is for us to acknowledge God. What God wants from worship is for God’s story to be remembered, recited, re-invigorated, carried forth into our lives and into the world.

This is HUGE!  This means that what we do here, for the brand, to “sell” the brand to others, or to make disciples, cannot be about what you and I want. It is about the brand and the customer.

Is the customer always right?  Honestly, no.  But few of us have the chops to decide when the customer is right and when he or she isn’t.

As a crew member at McDonald’s, I had to operate from the position of the customer always being right. When this got challenging, I couldn’t make the call, I had to call the manager, and let the manager decide.

I believe we should operate from the same perspective.

The manager was better trained to be able to do what really needed to be done if the customer was, in fact wrong, and that was to find a way to stand firm without alienating the customer.

If our customers are “everyone out there” who isn’t already a disciple of Jesus and who doesn’t have a church family, how do we find ways to interact with them where we can stand firm as disciples without alienating them?

I don’t know if this helps or not, but according to the Gospels, about the only people Jesus alienated are the really religious. Oh, yeah, and maybe that rich guy who didn’t want to share.

Sometimes, we as followers of Jesus wear our ability to alienate people like a badge of honor. When we do so, we are not serving the business we are in, and we are not following Jesus.

Looking at the gospel in the metaphor of sales and consumerism, the customer is anyone who has not yet accepted the Gospel as truth and began following Jesus.

Ah, but today’s gospel reading reminds us it isn’t only them, “out there” who are customers. Nicodemus was an insider.  He was a Pharisee, a religious leader. But Nicodemus recognized a disconnection between his own life and what Jesus was teaching, so he came to Jesus, humble, and curious, to learn. Perhaps, even, to follow, to become a disciple.

So, for the customers – all those out there and in here who are willing, like Nicodemus, to acknowledge a disconnection between their life and what Jesus is teaching, can we, as followers of Jesus, treat them, our customers, as if they are always right?

Even if we are firmly convinced they are NOT?

So, when in doubt; let’s check with the manager.  In our lives as disciples, Jesus is the manager.

When you find it most difficult to assume someone else is right, but your goal is to invite them, or win them, or convince them, to follow Jesus, it is on you to keep the conversation open.

If, that is, you want to make the sale. Which means you believe Jesus, and following Jesus, is a valuable experience that God, and you, want everyone to have. You are a disciple, and you want to make more disciples. That is the business we are in!

There are challenging people out there!  There are challenging people in here!  I personally have driven some of you near crazy!

And there are people in the world around us – in our community, in our schools, our neighbors, our co-workers, who make it really difficult for us to remember, sometimes, that Jesus loves them, too, at least as much as Jesus loves us.

So, when it gets difficult, invite Jesus into your challenge.

What do you think Jesus would say? That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

If they are part of “the world,” then God loves them, and sent Jesus for them, and they are our customer.

So, when you have trouble, don’t walk away from the sale, but invite Jesus in.

Our job is to treat our customers well enough that, even if they don’t get their money back, or their order corrected, or free food, they might still consider coming back.

Can you treat all customers in a way that even if they don’t buy what you’re selling this time, they might consider coming back another time?

Anyone who walked away from Jesus disappointed or their wishes or expectations unfulfilled was pretty clear it was on them, not on Jesus.

Can you and I learn to treat our customers this well?

Are you willing to live in this simple phrase from the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:18: If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.

Let me put that in context for you:

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. 

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.        (Romans 12:9-21)

Who are our customers?  Anyone, everyone who can become a disciple of Jesus Christ.  How do we reach our customer, how do we make them our customer – how do we convince them that they want – or need – what we have?

We begin by learning to do this: If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.

I feel compelled to add this: we cannot let ourselves off so easy on the “to the best of your ability” part.  If you follow Jesus, you don’t get to throw up your hands and say, “well, I’m just a sinner,” or
“That’s just the human condition!” or whatever other line you and I use in our heads to cop out on following Jesus.

One of the worst is “Don’t look at me, look at Jesus!” Oh, pullease! No one will look at the Jesus you point to over there if that Jesus looks a lot different from the one you are modeling.

We owe it to our customers – to those we would reach for Christ; we owe it to God – to welcome God’s transforming power into our lives so we can say, “this following Jesus thing that I am trying to sell you, look at how it works in my life!”

And, to close, one of the most obvious ways you and I, as followers of Jesus, can “to the best of our ability, live at peace with all people.”

Will you join me in refusing to participate in the demeaning name-calling and venom-spewing that is our presidential election season?