Monday, September 5, 2016


The word has come down from the Vatican. Sermons should be no longer than 8 minutes, according to Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops. Homilies should be tailored to people with short attention spans. The article in the Guardian where I read this also mentions Irish priest Father Michael Kenny who has an early morning mass that only runs 15 minutes! And attendance has gone from 3 or 4 to 30 or 40. In by 7:30 am and out by 7:45, perfect for people going to work or taking kids to school, Fr. Kenny says. I am assuming, therefore, this is a weekday mass.

I responded to the Facebook post of this article by saying, “Why not replace the scripture readings with TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read), limit the sermon to 140 characters and put the whole service on a Vine?” (That's a social media platform that hosts 6 second videos.) “Jesus' Sermon on the Mount takes up 3 whole chapters of Matthew. What was he thinking?”

Now I agree with Archbishop Eterovic that clergy should keep up on current affairs and address issues of local or national significance and that they should follow the pope's lead in taking a whole week to turn out a sermon that is “engaging and relevant.” (I don't remember the pope's sermons being breaktakingly short, however.) I also agree that short sermons are harder to write because they have to be really disciplined and well-crafted. The reason I write my sermons is because I don't want to subject you to 40 minutes of me rambling. Writing makes me think hard about what precisely I am saying and exactly how I am saying it. It helps me time them accurately and keep them short, though usually they are twice the length of the Archbishop's ideal.

I also know that a short sermon can be very effective. The shortest one I ever heard was when Fr. Paul Rasmus was leaving St. Paul's in Key West. At our final Keys Convocation with him, his sermon was this: “God loves you, and there is nothing that you can do to stop that!” Period. But I don't think you could get away with that weekly.

The problem is that people tend to take the easiest way out and the easiest way to preach a short sermon is to oversimplify an issue. We see this all the time in our Twitter culture. Take a complicated subject and boil it down into a something that is punchy and quotable. But as a paraphrase of H.L. Mencken puts it: for every complex problem there is a simple solution...and it's wrong! A prime example of this oversimplification goes way back to the early days of feminism. You may have seen it on bumper stickers: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I understand the basic idea. Women need not feel incomplete if they don't have a husband or boyfriend in their life. But the saying, which went viral before “viral” was a thing, makes no sense. A fish can't ride a bicycle even if it wanted to. Did the author of that sentiment literally mean that men and women are so fundamentally different that they are absolutely of no possible use to one another? I doubt it. But that's the kind of snappy saying that has made it almost impossible to have a sensible conversations about complex problems today. If you really get into a issue that has many sides and factors, insisting that we keep everything short and simple leads to short tempers and simplistic thinking.

On Wednesday the NPR show On Point dealt with a vital problem we are having today: the crisis of unreliability in science. And they had several experts who all had their points to make. They brought up the subject of how politicians misuse science to bolster their positions rather than to come up with solutions. They brought up the problems of industry funding studies and the subsequent pressure to get results that either lead to marketable products or which support the use of products already on the market. They brought up the problem of academics having to “publish or perish;” in other words to continually produce new research to get tenure. They brought up the problem of out and out fraud by some scientists who are, after all, flawed human beings and whose livelihood depends on cranking out new and exciting results. They brought up the problem of the pressure to only publish positive results. You rarely see the results of an experiment that didn't work out, even though it is important for scientists to know that certain hypotheses don't pan out. They brought up the problem of how many of the works published are bad science because the results can't be reproduced because the data were cherrypicked, or the sample size was too small or all the variables were not taken into account. They brought up the problem of studies where the data was valid but the conclusions are questionable. They brought up the problem of confirmation bias, where we tend to see what we expect to see or want to see and are often blind to what we don't expect or don't wish to see. They didn't bring up the problem of scientific journals, some of whom will publish anything provided you pay their fees, nor the high subscription fees that keep scientists from third world countries from learning about the latest research. This is an essential issue in the 21st century and even an hour could not cover every salient aspect of it.

A few weeks ago I dealt with Jesus saying that he came to bring fire to the earth. He talked about causing division rather than peace. There is a very short and simple way to deal with that passage and that is to say Jesus can't wait to destroy the earth and cast non-believers into hell! That's brief and punchy. The problem is it doesn't jibe with other things Jesus said and so I used commentaries and theology and a lot of thought to take a deeper look at the passage. As it so often turns out, what Jesus was saying required a lot of reflection. And the fruits of that reflection required a bit more time than the Archbishop thinks necessary.

So what does this have to do with today's gospel (Luke 14:25-33)? Jesus is again saying something difficult to hear and easy to misinterpret if we don't take time to reflect. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Whoa! Did he literally mean that? Some cults think so and thus they separate people from their families and will not allow them to meet or communicate. But given that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for allowing people to dedicate their wealth to God and thereby get out of having to support their aged parents, this sounds out of character for him. Either he didn't say this or he is making a point rhetorically. I think it's the latter.

We live in a time where we emphasize the individual and tell people to follow their dreams no matter who tells you not to, even if they are family. That's the moral of most Disney films! In Jesus' day that would not be a popular message. The family and the community were considered more important than the individual. To his audience, Jesus telling people to put him and his mission first would be interpreted as the equivalent of him telling them to just hate everyone else, including your loved ones. So what was he really getting at? 

Think of a soldier. We tell them to leave behind their parents, their siblings, their wives and children with the full knowledge that they may never see them again. And no matter how patriotic the family, watching your son or daughter or sibling or husband or wife or father or mother choose to go off to possibly die must at times feel like a rejection of you. Why are the people in Iraq or Afghanistan more important than me, your supposed loved one? We understand the hierarchy of values here but just ask a soldier's spouse if that realization gives them comfort when they lie in a half-empty bed or have to explain why daddy or mommy keeps going away for months at a time or why their parent will never come back.

Jesus is demanding the same allegiance to him and the Kingdom of God that we demand of a soldier. The cost of following him is that high. That's why Jesus says, “And anyone who does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross was not a piece of decorative jewelry but a method of executing slaves and traitors to the Roman Empire. Jesus is saying you need skin in the game if you are going to call yourself a disciple. Armchair enthusiasts need not apply.

Having laid out the true risks of following him, Jesus says: Count the cost. He compares it to calculating how much it will take to build something. He even uses the concept of going to war. Jesus wants commitment, not lip service.

It was physically dangerous to follow Jesus in the first century. It is still physically dangerous to follow him in some parts of the world. The Middle East is rapidly depleting itself of the number of Christians who live there. Followers of Jesus are being killed by ISIS in the Near East and and by others in parts of Africa and Asia. Some Americans talk of Christians being persecuted here but that is an insult to our brothers and sisters in Christ who really are being oppressed and even murdered for their faith.

What do we face? Separation of church and state, which was put in the Bill of Rights by James Madison to protect Christians, like Baptists, who were being imprisoned and locked out of political office in states where another Christian denomination had power. Do we want to return to the days when one church or religion could to that to Americans who worship differently?

And, yes, you may get ridiculed and trolled online for being a Christian. You might have someone in your workplace who doesn't appreciate any expressions of your faith and lets you know that. You might work for a place that doesn't allow you to automatically get Sundays or certain holy days off. You child's school might be overly sensitive to issues of church and state separation and interpret it to mean your child cannot personally express his or her faith. But that is hardly persecution. You can still go to any church you want to and worship, unlike, say, in China. You can on your own time be involved in church and faith-centered activities. Just remember: so can others. As my 8th grade teacher, an ex-top sergeant, used to say, your freedom to swing your arms ends at my nose. And vice versa. I seem to remember someone saying we should treat others the same way we would like to be treated.

Besides, as Jesus says, following him has a cost. Not everyone will appreciate what you do or why you do it. It's not a popularity contest. Just make sure you are doing something Jesus actually commanded.

Expressing opinions on political issues is your right as an American citizen but it is not something Jesus told us to do. By all means you may opine on abortion or gay rights or certain candidates in your role as a citizen. Just remember Jesus said nothing on any of those things and so make it clear Christ has not endorsed your views. On the other hand, if a candidate or a party says something that is diametrically opposed to something Jesus explicitly said, you can and should point out the discrepancy. If I or anyone else told you that committing adultery or neglecting the poor or mistreating people or hating your enemies was OK with Jesus, you should definitely call me or anyone who said that on it.

The problem with a lot of Christians claiming persecution here in America is that in many cases they are not being opposed for their views but for being jerks about it. If you are picketing the funerals of soldiers and children and victims of violence in order to get press coverage of your message of hate, people aren't negatively reacting to the gospel of Jesus; they are reacting to your distinctly unloving actions. If you are giving a checkout clerk grief about saying “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” you are not sharing the good news; you are making some low-level, overworked employee's life harder. If you are working a government job and the conditions change such that you can no longer do it in good conscience, not because it is discriminating against people or oppressing them but just because you don't feel right doing it, and you don't resign your job but try to obstruct the law, you are not converting sinners; you are reinforcing the stereotype that Christians are more interested in making stands about some things, like sex, rather than other issues, like the mistreatment of people.

In today's New Testament reading, we see Paul dealing with a real moral dilemma. He is writing an active Christian named Philemon about a tricky situation. It seems that Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, who robbed him and fled. Onesimus came across Paul and was converted by him. He was a real help to Paul in his ministry. The problem is that Rome had the equivalent of the Fugitive Slave Act we had here in the U.S. Once Paul learned that Onesimus was a runaway slave he was legally obligated to return him to his owner. And legally Philemon could do anything he wanted to his fugitive slave: brand him, cripple him or even kill him. The law is completely on Philemon's side and totally against Paul and Onesimus. What should Paul do?

For one thing, Paul does the exact opposite of being a jerk about it. He says that he could command Philemon to do what Paul wants but says he will make his request out of love instead. Paul points out that Philemon and Onesimus are now brothers in Christ. He points out that Onesimus (whose name means useful) has lived up to that name during his time with Paul. He is sending the slave back but says he expects Philemon to treat the young man as he would treat Paul. Paul offers to pay Philemon back for anything Onesimus has stolen while hinting that, as Philemon's spiritual father, the slave owner owes Paul his very soul. Paul would like the man to send his slave back but says he is confident that Philemon will do even more than he asks. And what could that be but the freeing of Onesimus? By the way, there is a tradition that Onesimus was made the bishop of Berea and died for his faith.

Onesimus risked his life for his faith before that: when he willingly returned to his owner because Paul sent him. We in the U.S. will probably not have to die for our faith. But following Jesus does require sacrifice. Our treasure, our talents, and our time belong to Jesus. He commands us to love not only our neighbor but our enemies. He commands us to forgive one another, up to 70 times 7. He commands us to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate. He commands us to go the second mile and to give to whoever asks us for help and turn no one away. He wants us to view the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the immigrant, the sick and the prisoner as we would Jesus himself and treat them all accordingly. Our whole lives are to be a living sacrifice to God. That's the real cost of following Jesus.

The problem is not that we are preaching for more than 8 minutes. The problem is we keep lowering the price of following Jesus. God asks for one day a week; we've got it down to an hour but now people want us to serve up salvation like we're Jiffy Lube! Perhaps churches should put in a drive-thru lane and offer communion in a to-go cup.

People know that if something doesn't cost much, it isn't worth much. If we treat Jesus like fast food, then people will think that he is just like all the other junk they try to fill their empty lives with. They won't realize that he is the Bread of Life, that satisfies all spiritual hunger, the fountain of Living Water, that quenches all spiritual thirst, the pearl of great price, worth everything you have because he is everything you will ever need.    

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