No distractions

Detail of the All Souls Window by Ron Ross

A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 7, 2010. The lectionary readings are Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38.

You may have seen the results of a recent survey taken by people who drive in Fairfax County. Of 1,500 people surveyed, “75 percent said they think using a cell phone while driving is a distraction,. But 54 percent admit to doing it themselves.” 15 percent admitted to texting while driving, and they didn’t even ask how many people fiddle with the radio while driving, deal with children in the back seat, juggle food and hot coffee, or put on makeup. There are a lot of distractions both inside the car, and outside. When you think about it, it’s sort of a wonder that when we drive, we get anywhere at all.

We definitely would not get very far if we stopped along the way for every distraction that presented itself. To read every billboard, to notice every new thing, to pay real attention to the cars around us—we’d be dealing with distractions all of the time.

Even though he’s not driving, it seems Jesus is having to deal with distractions—the kind of distractions that are trying their best to slow him down, to get him off track, or to even to make him veer off course and lose his way.

In the Gospel we just heard a group of religious leaders try their best to distract Jesus and to throw him off his mission.

The Gospel reading takes place as Jesus has already come into Jerusalem. The procession we recall on Palm Sunday has already happened. Jesus has overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple and he has gotten some attention. The Sadducees were a powerful group in Jerusalem, and in today’s reading, Jesus comes up against them. Their beliefs were based on the first five books of scripture only, and they believe that these had been authored by Moses.

If it wasn’t contained in those books, then there was no reason to believe it. But Jesus talks about things not contained in the books of Moses. And Jesus talks about eternal life. But the Sadducees don’t believe in eternal life, not for a minute. So when they ask Jesus a question about it, he suspects that they’re trying to trick him.

Both Jesus and the Sadducees know the longstanding Jewish practice that if a man dies and he has no children to continue his family, his brother should marry the widow to provide for the brother’s family to come. And so, the Sadducees ask Jesus a hypothetical: what if each of the seven brothers dies, but at each point along the way, a remaining brother marries the widow. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?

Jesus sees the distraction and refuses to be tripped up by it. He tells them that if they were really so concerned about the resurrection and believed in it, then they would be more concerned about getting their own lives in order, not asking questions about marriage. Marriage is for those of “this age,” Jesus says—those who need to provide for a family or provide for the wellbeing of others. The typical marriage in First Century Palestine, like much of the first millennium, was more about property and possessions than it was about love and sharing.

But whenever Jesus talks about marriage, he talks about it as something that always points beyond itself. Marriage doesn’t exists as an end in itself. It doesn’t exist simply for the two partners, or even the nuclear family. Marriage is a preparation for something to come, a training ground for love, a hint of something even more incredible to follow, something that will be even better than the closes of human relationships, at the resurrection.

In talking with the Sadducees, Jesus resists the urge to get distracted by talking about marriage or the treatment of widows or even of the justification of the Sadducees as a religious group. Instead, Jesus keeps his focus. And he keeps moving toward the cross.

Jesus tries to wake up this crowd when he says, “Ours is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all of them are alive.” Anything that is not a part of that life—the life of God—is less than it can be, and anything that tries to turn us away from that life is a distraction.

As we continue to celebrate this week after All Saints Day, we can say with faith that death, itself, is a distraction. This is not to say that we deny death, or that those who face their own death or the death of a loved one are not in real pain. But what it does mean is that at a very deep level, there beneath the distractions of pain and loss and hurt and heartache, our faith gives us what we need to look death in the face and laugh at it. The words of St. Paul put it well when he says, “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15)

The other readings for today, in their own way, also attest to this power of God to dispel the distractions.

In the Old Testament reading we see Job, who even in the very midst of death—the death of his family, the death of his career, his health, even his future (it seems)—he clings to the life of God. Job refuses to be done in by the distractions around him, especially when his friends try to create complicated theological justifications for what he is experiencing. Instead, Job cries out for life: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Likewise, to the people at Thessalonica, Paul says, “the Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” These are appropriate words as we approach Veterans Day this Thursday, when our country remembers those who have often strengthened and guarded us.

But distractions do still come. We may not have Sadducees coming up to us and trying to trick us with questions about the resurrection, but we do have plenty of people who will try to trick us with religious arguments, with scripture taken out of context, with confused theology, with simplistic thinking. Whether it is the campaigns political or the campaigns theological that attempt to sidetrack us; whether it is the attack from the right or from the left, from the friend or from the stranger; or just our bodies growing old and rebelling against us—distractions come in many ways.

Prayer helps. Meditation lessens the distractions; contemplation keeps us clear. But today’s Gospel also reminds us simply to focus on Christ and on his focus—the cross that is leads through death to live everlasting. Look for life, in other words, in every situation.

Distractions will continue to dance around us, occasionally needing to be swatted into their place. We might even fall for a few of them; but hopefully we won’t get too far off course. But with our eyes on the cross, like Christ, we can live life fully. We can celebrate life. We can radiate life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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