Please visit again soon to read more sermons by Fr. Morse.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
How do you measure popularity? These days most people measure popularity by social media followers and likes. But that’s not always an authentic measure. There are companies that will sell large blocks of fake followers to those who want to look more popular than they really are.
And this isn’t a new thing. Back in 300 B.C., a performer named Philemon hired audience members to laugh loudly at his jokes. The paid laughers were so effective that Philemon routinely beat out his competitors in local comedy competitions.
Shakespeare did the same thing in the 1600s, paying audience members to respond with laughter, cheers and clapping to his plays.
In the 1800s, theater managers in Paris paid select audience members to clap, laugh or weep at the appropriate points in the show. And in 1950, the first “laugh track” was created. It was a recorded loop of pre-taped audience laughter that was then played at appropriate spots in other shows to convince audience members that the shows were funnier than they actually were. (1)
There’s even a company in Los Angeles that provides fake crowds of adoring fans and paparazzi for a price. The company is called Crowds on Demand. And if you want to spend even more money with them, they can provide a luxury automobile and bottles of champagne, and drive you to the swankiest shopping district in LA. That’s the full celebrity experience. Their website claims that they hire “top notch professional talent with significant acting experience for our crowds.” (2)
In the beginning of Luke 12, we read that Jesus’ popularity has become so great that he and his disciples were being followed by a crowd of “many thousands” of people. And he didn’t have to pay for any of them. The crowd was so boisterous that Jesus and his disciples were in danger of being trampled by them.
How does it feel to be a rockstar? The disciples must have felt really good about their decision to follow Jesus, seeing as how his ministry was becoming so influential. Only Jesus understood that they were following him, not to a throne or a new political movement, but to his death on the cross, the death of an outcast. From popularity to shame and suffering and persecution. In a short time, that crowd of many thousands would be lining the streets of Jerusalem and loudly demanding Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman government.
So Luke 12 is basically one long teaching on how to disengage from the world’s attractions, from its values, from its popularity contests. Jesus is trying to warn his disciples that they can’t count on the crowd’s approval for long. He knows he will be leaving them soon, and they will suffer greatly as they try to carry on his mission without him. They will pay a price for following him, so they’d better be prepared for it. But he can also see how the Holy Spirit, his Spirit living in them, will lead them to change the world.
Many leaders gauge the success of their ministry on its popularity, on the number of followers they have. Jesus gauged the success of his ministry on his obedience to God. And he warned us that obedience to God will make us unpopular with the world. In Luke 12, he’s teaching his disciples, “Don’t let your current circumstances blind you, or your current comforts bind you to this world. Saying ‘Yes’ to me means saying ‘No’ to this world and its comforts and priorities and value systems.”
Have you ever dropped in on the middle of a conversation and thought, “Wait a minute—did I hear that right?” That’s how we may feel when we read this passage from Luke 12. Jesus is the love of God in the flesh. He is the Prince of Peace. The one whose death healed our separation with God and with our fellow humans. So these words from Jesus sound like they’re out of character for him. That’s what happens when we take Jesus’ words out of context. To understand this passage, we need to understand the “conversation” around it.
I want you to keep that context in mind as we read the first few verses in our Bible passage today: “”I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
Traveling across country I came across a sign in Wyoming “Continental Divide.” I thought it was too far west to be the center of the continent. A continental divide is a boundary that separates a continent’s river systems. From there the waters flow either toward the Atlantic or the Pacific.” I realized that the decision to follow Jesus is that kind of divide It’s a watershed moment. Once you commit to following Jesus’ example, you leave your old life behind and take up a new life that is not under your own control.
There is a great quote from British philosopher Gordon Graham. He writes, “Decision is a sharp knife that cuts clean and straight; indecision is a dull one that hacks and tears and leaves ragged edges behind it.”
Decisions are not the same as opinions or feelings. Decisions require action. Decisions have a result. Decisions effect change. Sitting in church is not a decision. Conforming your life to the character, priorities and actions of Jesus is a decision.
“Decision is a sharp knife that cuts clean and straight . . .” That’s what Jesus is talking about in this passage. The decision to follow him is a sharp knife. It cuts away our ties to this world and its value systems. There are three ways that following Jesus creates division, and we need to consider these seriously before we make the decision to commit our life to him.
First, following Jesus divides us from the person we used to be. In Second Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” You are a new creation.
Paul would know about these things. Before he became a follower of Jesus, he was a zealous member of the Pharisees, a sect that believed in strict obedience to traditional Jewish law. And his strict obedience inspired him to violently persecute Jesus-followers. After he became a follower of Jesus, he became a leader in the early church, helping to spread the message and ministry of Jesus throughout the Roman empire and writing thirteen of the twenty-seven letters that make up the New Testament.
In Philippians 3, Paul talks about how influential and connected he used to be. He lost his status, his power, his connections—he lost it all when he became a follower of Jesus. And he goes on to say that he counts all the perks of his previous life to be garbage Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.l
That’s St. Paul’s testimony. Let me relate to you the testimony of a more contemporary figure—another Paul—Noel Paul Stookey. Noel Paul Stookey is one-third of the world-famous folk music group Peter, Paul & Mary. In 1968, Paul was greeting fans after a concert. A young man came up to Paul and said, “I want to talk to you about the Lord.” Paul doesn’t know why his heart started to beat a little faster. He doesn’t know why he sat down and listened to this young man. But he does know that when he and this young man prayed together, God changed his life. During the prayer, Paul saw himself as a “hollow man.” All the things he had been chasing after were meaningless.
He says of his life after that prayer, “I was washed, cleansed—I couldn’t believe it . . . Suddenly when I had admitted that I was sorry for the life I had led without God, everything collapsed, and I was perfectly balanced. I had been given day one again.” (3)
Following Jesus is never about improving your life. Jesus made that very clear. Following him is about dying to your old life and taking up his life. Decision is a sharp knife. Following Jesus divides us from the person we used to be.
Following Jesus also divides us from the people around us. Jesus’ own family didn’t believe in his identity and ministry until after his resurrection from the grave. Jesus understands how painful such separation is. It’s a natural consequence of living out the radical priorities of Christ, priorities such as loving your enemies, speaking the truth, pursuing peace, and not conforming to the value systems of the world. You are going to make others uncomfortable around you. Your character and lifestyle will make others question their own values and priorities.
Let me tell you about a man who experienced such separation from his family and friends. Franklin McCallie was raised in a prominent, wealthy family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of Chattanooga’s most prestigious private schools is named after his family.
Franklin was born around 1940. His family were staunch supporters of segregation. Franklin’s only contact with Black people were with his nanny and the Black men who served as his family’s household staff. Even though they were Christians, the McCallie family had for generations assumed that separation of the races was right and good in God’s eyes, and that Black people were not meant to be equal with whites.
In 1961, when the civil rights movement was gaining influence on college campuses across the nation, a college buddy invited Franklin McCallie to a small gathering between white and Black students from separate Tennessee colleges.
When Franklin heard the stories of discrimination against these young men and their families, he began to question his family’s acceptance of inequality and racism. When he returned home and tried to tell his family about his new insights, his uncle called him an embarrassment to the family name.
Later, when Franklin moved back to Chattanooga to take a teaching position with The McCallie School, he insisted that the school be integrated. His father refused, so he took a job instead at the all-black Howard School. He took his passion for integration and equal rights to the churches, to the politicians, to the streets. Occasionally, Franklin’s father would call to criticize him for his activism. Didn’t he know he was ruining his reputation?
One day, Franklin learned that the local Kiwanis Club had accepted its first Black member. He visited the head of the Club, a family friend, to thank him and to ask him how he had convinced all those white men to finally accept a Black man as a brother. The head of the Kiwanis Club said it was a member’s influence that changed that club. Who was it then Franklin wanted to know? “Franklin, didn’t you know? That was your father.”
Franklin went directly to The McCallie School campus to find his father. Father and son embraced. And then Franklin’s father spoke the words Franklin never thought he’d ever hear: “I’ve been wrong about Black people my whole life,” said his father.
Not long afterwards, Franklin McCallie’s father opened up The McCallie School to boys of all races, and all the private schools in Chattanooga followed their example. (4)
Thank God that Franklin McCallie’s father realized and repented of his mistaken attitude. Thank God he and his son reconciled. But that’s not always the case. Who do we love more—Jesus or our family and friends? We have to make a choice. Decision is a sharp knife. Following Jesus divides us from the people around us.
Following Jesus divides us from the value systems of this world. Jesus never hid this fact. He lived to teach people about the kingdom of God and its values. He never tried to gain influence with the power players in his society. He even tried to turn people away from following him. Jesus would not conform to the culture, even for the sake of popularity or success. Even for the sake of saving his own life. And if we are new creations in Christ, then we are called to give up everything, including our own lives, to follow his example.
Think of this if you leave here and need to find a new Church. You want one where the leaders of the church are challenging you to live sacrificially, to grow spiritually. Some people weren’t ready for that. They just wanted an inspiring message, a lively pick-me-up, maybe some small group time around a coffee bar. They certainly didn’t want to change their lifestyle and priorities to do the work of Jesus in their community.
Remember what St Paul said in today’s second reading:
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
It’s not easy to walk away from the life we know, the people we love, the value systems that have defined us. It’s not easy following Jesus. And that’s why Jesus used such strong language in this passage. No matter how popular and successful he looked in this moment, he knew that he was heading toward the cross. He valued obedience to God over his own life. And we cannot say we are followers of Jesus until we can make that same decision too.
- “A Brief History of Buying Laughter,” Quartz.com, Quartz Obsession, May 17, 2019.
- “Los Angeles company provides fake paparazzi and crowds for celebrity wannabes” by Wendy Lee, January 7, 2013, https://archive.kpcc.org/news/2013/01/07/35532/firm-allows-fake-celebrities-hire-crowd-fake-papar/.
- Steven R. Mosley, Glimpses of God (Sisters, Oregon: Questar Publishers, Inc., 1990), pp. 118-119.
- “The Privilege and Burden of Franklin McCallie,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, by Joan Garrett McClane, https://projects.timesfreepress.com/2014/10/mccallie/kb.html.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
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.