Sermon: Attention, Distraction, Attention, Distraction

December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Mark 13:24-37

I know. I’ve been merrily wishing you a Happy New Year, since the Church’s worship year begins with Advent, and then we get to the Scriptures and it seems like we’ve hardly changed our focus at all. Two weeks ago we heard Jesus’ parable of the three servants and their efforts, or not, to be ready when their employer returned, and now we’ve got the same thing (though much compressed) here in Mark.

In Mark’s version, though, Jesus emphasized watchfulness over activity, a readiness of attitude rather than a readiness of preparation, being awake rather than being engaged.

In these few words, Jesus reminded his disciples not once but four times, to pay attention.

I am very good at being distracted. In fact, I share a lot in common with the dogs in the Pixar movie “Up,” which you might remember from a few years ago. The dogs in that film are quite smart, and they even have devices that allow them to talk to humans and to each other. But every one of them get distracted by even the mention, let alone the sound, smell, or sight, of a squirrel.

(I know we don’t have squirrels here in Hawai’i. It’s a creature a little smaller than a mongoose, and it eats nuts and berries and they’re some of the best climbing creatures in all the world.)

All anyone had to say was, “Squirrel!” and they’d all look fixedly off to the side, ignoring anything else as they concentrated on that little rodent, whether it was there or not.

To this day, if I’m feeling like there’s a distraction at every turn, I’ll sigh that, “It’s a Squirrel Day.”

So when Jesus tells me to pay attention, I get nervous. Because it’s hard.

It’s also important. Jesus used a literary technique called apocalyptic here, which was a way for first century Jews (and Christians) to talk about God’s opinion of the present by describing the ways God would judge it at the end of time. Karoline Lewis writes, “When apocalyptic shows up in biblical writings, you know time has changed, time is changing, and it’s time to pay attention – not to prepare for the end of time, as this genre is frequently misunderstood, but to expect the revelation of God in our time.”

Attention for God’s revelation. Distraction from God’s revelation. Attention for God’s purposes. Distraction away from God’s direction.

Oh, my.

Yet there are signs out there of God’s movement in the world. We have been shocked in recent weeks by one revelation after another about powerful, frequently talented, often apparently virtuous men who have mistreated women or other men with sexual harassment or assault. Shocked by the identities of some of these, but I don’t think any women would be surprised at how many. Indeed, I suspect that there are many more stories out there.

And that is awful. But the awfulness is not in the telling of the truth and the exposure of the misconduct, the awfulness is in the harassment and assault itself, and in the coercion used to keep the victims silent all this time, and in the excuses made to protect these men from the consequences through the years and even now.

The truth-telling, I think, is a sign of a society that is becoming more like God wants it to be, where no man, no woman, no person suffers the predation of power, where no predator finds protection from the peremptory call of justice.

Let us pay attention to the revelation of truth. Let us not be distracted by the disappointment we feel in those who have mistreated their fellow human beings.

In truth we see kindled the light of the first candle of Advent: hope. In truth there is hope.

This season can be filled with distractions. Plenty of sermons have warned you of the commercialism of the holidays. Since that’s been done, I don’t have to, and I won’t. Instead, I’ll offer a suggestion of what to pay attention to: as you’re shopping for gifts, as you’re pushing your cart down the aisles of the grocery store, as you’re slicing and chopping and stirring, as you’re baking and sharing, pay attention to the love which motivates you. You give because you love. You cook because you love. You gather because you love. You share because you love.

Love is the fourth candle of Advent. And there’s hope in love, too.

Beware, though, the distractions which others offer you. There’s a political device in much use these days; it goes by the name of “whataboutism.” It’s pretty simple. If somebody points out a defect in your policy, or a failing of your candidate, or the outright moral bankruptcy of both, you say, “But what about…” and name some similar, but not always equivalent, failing in an opponent.

You distract from the suffering your policies might create by shifting the focus onto another. You distract from your candidate’s accountability by holding someone else accountable for something else. You distract from the truly dreadful by pointing at the simply unsupportable.

You may have noticed that it works very, very well.

Don’t be fooled.

Karoline Lewis writes: “God arrives, regardless of our readiness. God shows up, despite our determination toward manifesting our own destiny. God will come, no matter what kind of stipulations or conditions or provisions we make to persuade God of our timeliness.”

So pay attention, even when you’d prefer to be distracted.

In this whirlwind of attention, distraction, attention, distraction, look to the signs of God’s graceful activity in the world. It looks like the revelation of truth. It looks like a child in a stable, and a healer on the road. It looks like the compassion that took Jesus all the way to the cross. It looks like the new life Jesus revealed in his resurrection.

It even looks like this table, a meal at which all may gather, and at which all may be satisfied.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon:

Please note that the prepared text and recorded sermon are not identical.

Photo credit: By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons



Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on December 4, 2017

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