Vision Check

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!

“Happy” MLK Day

Though I have been blogging here since 2006, this is only my third MLK Day post.  I put quotes around Happy in the title because I’m not so sure this is a day that ought to be about happiness.

Maybe I should say it this way: I’m not sure today ought to be about one’s own happiness.  For some, it is not a holiday but a day of service.  I think King himself would have appreciated this particular way of recognition of his birthday.  After all, he did say that

 Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

But that’s the kind of thing many different people are likely saying about observance of MLK Day.  So why read this post?

Because I want to add this.  Something about the Civil Rights Movement that I did not know untila  few years ago is that it was such a multigenerational effort.  Much of hte protesting was done by young people while older adults held down their jobs.  Patient, steady training in the ways of nonviolence were practiced over and over because entire families, even communities, were commited to peaceableness.

In 2010 I posted about race issues and whether or not we have made progress since MLK’s day.  While we have not yet overcome, we have indeed made progress.  However, if injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as King suggested, I don’t think we ought to rest on our laurels.

In fact, whatever ground we have made up for on race relations over the past 40 years, I contend we have gotten worse on matters of generational relations.  Is there an issue today over which whole families, indeed, entire comunities, will rally to work together?

I fear we are inter-generationally much less connected now than we were as a society 40 years ago. I shared here, in 2007, startling truth from Kenda Creasy Dean’s Practicing Passion about this disconnection.  The problem is NOT the young people.  The problem is that the adults have let go of them!  Here is Dean’s explanation:

Tagged “the Autonomous Generation” by the New York Times in 1998, today’s adolescents have few adults or institutions who are prepared to ‘be there’ for them till the end of the age, or till the end of high school for that matter….
The distinctive feature of childhood in the late twentieth century… was the way adults pulled away from youth, despite young people’s expressed desire for a significant adult presence in their lives. (Practicing Passion, p.78, emphasis added)

Today; this year for MLK Day, and, if you will, throughout the rest of the year, let all of us who are adults refuse to pull away from young people!  We can become a nation for whom 11::00am on Sunday is not the most segregated hour of the week.  We can continue to overcome the fragmenting by race, class, culture, and faith in our society.  But we can do these things only if we stick together.

Our modern twist on Matthew 25: does it work?

Not long ago, I was pondering the well-known story of separating the sheep and the goats Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-46.  Follow that link to the CEB version of the entire story.  Here is a summary: the righteous and the wicked are separated for eternity based on whether or not they feed the hungry, offer drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison.

This is the “The Least of These” story: in serving (or not) the “least of these,) the King says, the King himself is served (or not).

Here is the question that struck me as I pondered: Does it count when we organize, or pay others, to take care of those in need of food, clothing, welcoming, or a visit, as when we do these things ourselves?

My answer is: I don’t think so.  I am not saying that supporting causes that organize to meet needs is wrong, or that God intends to “cast into eternal punishment” those who write checks to support such causes.

I am saying, however, that we miss out when and if we think that me sending someone else to serve on my behalf is the same as me serving.  An important part of our serving others is that it involves us with one another to better understand and connect with each other as fellow people-created-in-the-image-of-God.

Writing checks for other people to do the work, on the other hand, enables us to maintain the illusion that those in need are very “other” from ourselves. The more distance between people the easier it is to allow ourselves not to see and treat others as equally fully human.

But that is my answer. I look forward to yours!

Killing Wasps for Jesus; or, How I got over Boutique Volunteerism

I am at Glen Lake Camp this week as a volunteer. Volunteering is different this year. We learned of opportunities to paint, sew, even drag hose around the campus to water trees.

I immediately started trying to think of things I would rather do. I wanted to help, sure, but I really wanted to help on MY terms.

Sometimes we outsiders do have something to offer. More often, I think, we are interested in having the experience of helping than in actually helping. As the evening went on, I committed myself to helping in ways I was asked to help. If there were additional time and space for my ideas, so be it.

As I walked out inro the morning sun Tue next morning, the Executive Director saw me and called out to me, “Steve, I’ve got a job for you!” She handed me a can of wasp spray. “Wasps have been bad this year. Would you take this around and spray whatever you can find?”

Happy to have a job I hadn’t chosen, off I went. I checked every building on the grounds. One camper mentioned wasps under their picnic table, so I checked under the picnic tables.

The next day we received a surprise visit from the health inspector. GLC passed. One of the things he was looking for wasps and wasp nests.

He was impressed to have found none.

We US Christians (or perhaps first-world people in general) too often have a tendency to only want to help on our own terms. We often mean well and have good ideas, but ignoring those we seek to help is insulting and, perhaps, imperialistic.

Would you join me in, when volunteering, considering what is asked of you, rather than what is glamorous or preferred?

Say what you mean, Mean what you mean

Several years ago, The United Methodist Church made a change that seemed to me, at the time, useless and inconsequential. It must have seemed the same to most people, because it didn’t stick.

I’m ready to reclaim it.

We (the UMC) decided, sometime during the 1990’s, I believe, that we were no longer gonig to refer to clergy as ministers, but as clergy. It didn’t seem very significant at the time, but the reasoning was clear: ministry is the responsibility of all followers of Jesus, not just those who are set apart vocationally or by ordination.

“Ministry,” after all, is but a fancier word for “service.” All Christians, all followers of Jesus, all people of God, are to be in service to God, to each other, and to the world at large.

When we call our clergy “ministers,” the laziness of the language slowly but surely changes our understanding. When we have spent years saying that clergy are in the ministry, it has become easier with the years to see the laity as those who support and pay for the ministry done by the clergy. Yet we are all called to be in ministry, or service.

I think it is time, desperately so, that we re-visit the linguist commitment we made in the 1990’s. We, as United Methodists, must own that ministry is what we all do, and what Jesus expects of each of us.

So, call me clergy, a pastor, a chaplain.  If you are a follower of Jesus, I am no more of a minister than are you.  My seminary degree and ordination don’t make me a minister; following Jesus does.