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Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C
Thanks to King Duncan for these sermons today while I am away
I heard about a young man who loved to run. In fact he was a member of his high school team. He wasn’t a champion runner, though. He usually finished third or fourth in big races. Until one day just before a very big race he received a note from a very pretty girl that he had been trying to impress. The note said, “I’m cheering for you.” And it was signed “XXX, Lisa.” What does XXX on a note mean? It means “love and kisses.” Boy, that fired up this young man and he won his first big race ever.
By the way, do you know how XXX came to mean love and kisses? Back when most people could not read or write, they signed most official documents with an “X.” The X stood for the cross of Jesus and that made whatever they signed a solemn document. Sometimes, in order to show their utter sincerity, after they would sign their X, they would kiss it. After most people started to read and write, they still kept the X around, except now it was XXX and it stood for love and kisses.
The cross still means love to us today, doesn’t it? Just as a pretty girl’s love made that young man run faster on the track, so God’s love makes champions out of us. Because we know God loves us, we work harder to be the kind of people He created us to be. So, XXX from God. What does that mean? That’s right, love and kisses. You are loved. Go out and be champions.
Have you ever noticed how many warning signs you pass by in the average day? Signs like “Do Not Enter,” “School Crossing,” “Caution: Wet Floor.” There’s a hilarious warning circulating on the Internet (author unknown). It goes like this:
WARNING: Do Not Shampoo Your Hair In The Shower! It’s so good to finally get a health warning that is useful. It involves the shampoo when it runs down your body while you shower with it. Shampoo Warning! I don’t know WHY I didn’t figure this out sooner! I use shampoo in the shower! When I wash my hair, the shampoo runs down my whole body, and printed very clearly on the shampoo label is this claim:
“FOR EXTRA BODY AND VOLUME.” No wonder I have been gaining weight! “For extra body and volume.” Well! I have gotten rid of that shampoo and I am going to start showering with Dawn dish soap instead. Its label reads like this: “DISSOLVES FAT THAT IS OTHERWISE DIFFICULT TO REMOVE.”
Problem solved! If I don’t answer the phone I’ll be in the shower.
A trade school in Great Britain came up with an eye-catching warning sign to post in factories. On a piece of electrical equipment, they posted a truly scary sign: “Danger: Do Not Touch. Not only will this kill you, it will hurt the whole time you are dying.” (1) That’s a warning sign you shouldn’t ignore.
In our Bible passage for today Jesus has a warning for his followers. The warning is this: if we choose him as our Savior and Lord, then we may very well face criticism and rejection, even in our most intimate relationship, our relationship with our family. Listen closely to these disturbing words:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
That sounds like some families I have known. Just kidding, but could Jesus, gentle Jesus, cause such division? This is a difficult passage. We want Christ to give us peace in our homes and in our world; Christ is saying to us that his coming into the world may very well bring, not peace, but tension and division.
In June 1924, a riot broke out at a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers were down by four runs in the ninth inning, so the Tigers’ pitcher expressed his frustration by intentionally beaning one of the New York batters. Soon the players of both teams were trading shoves and insults. Within minutes hundreds of fan spilled out onto the field and began fighting. It’s one of the most notable examples of fan riots in American sports history. (2)
Sports fans used to be the ultimate example of rabid loyalty, of divisiveness. You can’t cheer for both the Packers and the Bears. You have to choose. Either you love the Lakers and hate the Celtics, or you love the Celtics and hate the Lakers. Pick a side.
But sadly, those aren’t the biggest divisions in our country anymore. Today we are divided over politics, values, lifestyles, culture, ethnicity. We want our churches to be the voice of unity and peace in our culture, and that is part of our calling. But there are numerous examples in the Bible of Jesus’ mission upsetting the status quo of religion and politics and culture and relationships. It’s the reason Jesus was killed. It’s the reason that his followers were persecuted, falsely accused, thrown into prison, tortured. It’s why some churches in other parts of the world have to meet in secret. It’s why people say that you should never talk about politics, religion or money in polite company. Talking about your faith in certain quarters is guaranteed to create divisions. That’s painful. How do we deal with that?
It’s important to remember, first of all, that wholehearted commitment always creates tension. Complete commitment to one thing requires rejecting any competing commitments. Certain options are off the table. That’s why some people are commitment-phobes. They have a hard time committing their heart, their energy, their time, their money, their future to a cause, to a relationship, to a belief. Commitment is scary. It requires discipline. It requires sacrifice. It requires giving up what feels good right now for what satisfies forever. Some people never make that step.
P. Moreland, in his bookApologetic Reasoning and the Christian Mind,tells of sharing his faith with a college student at the University of Vermont. The student was a believer in ethical relativism. Here is how a believer in ethical relativism would express his faith: “Whatever is true for you is true for you, and whatever is true for me is true for me . . . But no one should force his or her views on other people since everything is relative.” In other words, believe whatever you want. No need to pick a side.
Moreland writes, “I knew that if I allowed him to get away with ethical relativism, there could be for him no such thing as real, objective sin measured against the objective moral command of God, and thus no need of a Savior. I thanked the student for his time and began to leave his room. On the way out, I picked up his small stereo and started out the door with it. ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ he shouted . . . ‘I am leaving your room with your stereo,’ [I said].
“‘You can’t do that,’ [the student] gushed.”
Moreland retorted, “I happen to think it is permissible to steal stereos if it will help a person’s religious devotions, and I myself could use a stereo to listen to Christian music in my morning devotions. Now I would never try to force you to accept my moral beliefs in this regard because, as you said, everything is relative and we shouldn’t force our ideas on others. But surely you aren’t going to force on me your belief that it is wrong to steal your stereo, are you?”
You see what he was doing. Moreland confronted the student’s desire to believe in ethical relativism in certain areas of his life and ethical absolutism in other areas. He went on to say, “Believe it or not, the student honestly saw the inconsistency of his behavior and, a few weeks later, I was able to lead him to Jesus Christ.” (3)
Wholehearted commitment is rare in our world, so it automatically creates tension. People who make a difference in the world are always controversial.
The year was 1910, and a dreaded epidemic of infantile paralysis was moving across the face of the Western world. Some of you remember when polio was the number one fear of parents in this country. Polio strikes its victims quickly, starting out with painful muscle spasms and ending in partial or total paralysis.
Doctors had no idea how to treat the disease. But in a remote area of Australia, a young nurse named Elizabeth Kinney had found a treatment that worked.
When a friend’s child showed signs of developing polio, Nurse Kinney ignored all the best medical advice of her time and tried a different treatment on the child. By morning, the child improved. Then Nurse Kinney began treating other patients successfully, and publishing her medical research on the disease. But doctors all over the world ignored her success because they refused to believe a nurse could have come up with a better treatment than they could.
Finally in 1950, Nurse Kinney’s treatment for polio became the standard treatment worldwide. Before her death in 1952, Elizabeth Kinney was recognized by the American Congress of Physiotherapy with its Distinguished Service Gold Key. She was the first woman to ever be awarded this high honor.
But what if Elizabeth Kinney had never gone into nursing? That’s almost what happened. When Elizabeth was just starting out in school, her fiancé didn’t want her going into medicine. He told her she had to make a choice: marriage to him, or her education as a nurse. Pick a side. Elizabeth chose nursing. Imagine how hard it was to lose the love of her fiancé. But millions of people all over the world were healed because of her choice. (4) Sometimes you have to choose.
“Do you think I came to bring peace on the earth?” Jesus said. “No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus warns us, wholehearted commitment always creates tension.
But wholehearted commitment also creates passion. Jesus uses the imagery of fire to explain his mission on earth. “I have come to bring fire on the earth . . .” Usually we think of fire as a destructive force. But fire can also mean a couple of other things that are very positive. Fire can symbolize passion. Wholehearted commitment creates passion as well as division.
Let me tell you about a young woman in central India named Kusum. Kusum was born into a Hindu family, but when she was 11 years old she secretly attended a Christian church service and converted to Christ. Since the election of Prime Minister Modi in India in 2014, persecution and violence against non-Hindu believers has increased in Kusum’s town. Kusum and her husband had two sons. Soon after the birth of their second child, Kusum’s husband died. The people in her village blamed her for his death, saying that her Christian faith had brought a curse on her family.
When employers discovered that Kusum was a Christian, she lost job after job. One employer told her that she could keep her job—her only means of providing for her children—if she gave up her faith in Jesus. She refused.
A few years later, Kusum’s younger son died, and the villagers refused to let her bury him in the town. She had to carry his little body miles outside of the town and dig his grave by herself. A few hours after Kusum returned from burying her little boy, her father-in-law burst into her house with an ax. He blamed her Christian faith for the death of his son and grandson, and announced that he would kill Kusum for following Jesus. As Kusum cowered in fear, she prayed. She said, “I had only one certainty. I would not betray Jesus. Despite all the tragedies, he has never disappointed me.” To her surprise, Kusum’s father-in-law left without hurting her. In spite of the persecution and threats of violence and loneliness that she endures, Kusum remains faithful to Christ. (6)
“I had only one certainty,” Kusum vowed, “I would not betray Jesus.” That’s passion. It’s the kind of passion Christ means to engender in all his followers. “I have come to bring fire on the earth . . .”
But fire has another benefit. Fire brings new life. Christ knew that the fire that was kindled in him would be kindled in his followers after his resurrection. He also knew that everyone who had this fire burning within them would find that this fire would burn away their old life, their old priorities, their old vanities. Fire destroys, but it also purifies.
Rev. Meghan Feldmeyer knows the devastating effects of fire, particularly wildfires. Sometime back they swept through her hometown of Colorado Springs, CO. However, while researching wildfires, she discovered that they also serve a useful purpose in creating new life. She writes, “A forest that is affected by fire experiences something called plant adaptation. In this, plants and trees often adapt to be more resistant to fire . . . they become stronger and more resistant in the face of future danger. Also, there is increased growth in the forest after a fire . . . the heat from the fire triggers the dormant pinecone seeds to pop open and land in the charred and ashy soil, which is a mysteriously rich soil for new life to burst forth.” (7)
Fire releases new life. Why do you think the cross, a symbol of suffering and death, represents the followers of Jesus Christ? Because death is essential for new life. And willingly laying down your life for what you believe is the ultimate commitment.
We want the church to be a beacon of peace in our society. We want our faith in Jesus to bring greater peace and unity and understanding to our families, our towns, our world. But committing to Jesus as Lord means giving up all other gods. It means putting God above everything, including our love for our family or our love for our own lives. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus bring peace to our hearts. But it also marks the greatest dividing line in human history. Either you are for him or against him. Either you are seeking a world of righteousness, justice and love or you are simply looking out for yourself. You can’t have it both ways. It’s time to pick a side.
- “20 Funny Warning Signs to Make You Chuckle” by Christos Panayiotou,https://www.tradeskills4u.co.uk/posts/funny-health-safety-signs.
- “The 25 Craziest Sports Fan Stories of All Time” by Gus Turner, https://www.complex.com/sports/2014/09/25-craziest-sports-fan-stories-of-all-time/.
- Kenny Demara,Divided Desire: Restoring Lost Connections in the Global Village(Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013).
- The Great Womenby Joan Marlow (New York: Galahad Books), pp. 259-265.
- “5 Stories of Salvation to Evangelism,” Shawn A. Akers,https://ministrytodaymag.com/outreach/evangelism/20728-someone-told-me-evangelism.
- “Young Mom Clings to Christ as Tolerance Shifts in India” by Brian Orme, April 3, 2018.https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/young-mom-clings-christ-tolerance-shifts-india/
- “Strange Fire” by Rev. Meghan Feldmeyer,https://chapel.duke.edu/sites/default/files/Strange%20Fire–08-18-13_0.pdf.