Keeping Focus

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22, Psalm 54 , James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, and Mark 9:30-37.

I have a friend who was a pretty decent gold player.  Until he wasn’t any longer.  For some unexplained reason, he just wasn’t hitting the ball quite right.  He wondered if he had pulled something in his shoulder.  He wondered if he was just getting older.  He tried every little thing he knew and eventually consulted a pro golfer for lessons—maybe he could do something with my friend’s swing. 

The professional worked with him for a few sessions, and then one day, just as my friend was saying goodbye to the golf pro, he took off his glasses and put on his sunglasses. The pro thought of something.  “Are those, by any chance new glasses?” he asked.  “Well yes, they are, but they’re just like my old ones.” The pro knew enough to ask more.  “Just like? Or slightly different.”  We’ll, they’re slightly different, there’s a bifocal lens inside, and there may have been some particular adjustment.  The pro was intrigued.  “Do you still have your old glasses?  If so, bring them next time and let’s see how you hit the ball with them.”  Well, my friend couldn’t wait until next time.  He went straight home and returned to the driving range, put some balls on the ground, and – one, two, three, four, five—each swing was perfect.  There had been something about his new glasses that caused his eye to be just off the ball.  It changed the angle of his neck, and he overcompensated with his swing.  Once he was able to focus properly, the ball went straight as an arrow. 

Some things in life are all about the “focus.”  We’ve seen that the past week with politicians, as they’ve been lured off point, away from the subject, and have made huge blunders.  Whether it’s politicians or people behind the wheel of a car, or almost any other situation we can think of– when one gets distracted, mistakes can be made, obvious things overlooked, and consequences ensue.
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus tries to tell the disciples something vitally important, but the disciples can’t focus.  They’re looking and listening elsewhere.  They are all traveling and Jesus lays it all out to them as he says, “The Son of man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him; and three days after he is killed, he will rise again.” But the disciples aren’t really listening. They are distracted. They are thinking about, among other things, their own futures. They’re anticipating Jesus coming into power, maybe Jesus going into Jerusalem and taking over, and so the disciples are busy wondering about which of them will be the greatest. Which of them will have the responsible job? Which of them will be noticed, will be thanked, will be rewarded?

Jesus re-focuses his friends with simple words. The drama of the past, the endless possibilities of the future all crumble as Jesus says, probably very quietly: “To be first, one must be the last of all. To be first, one must be the servant of all.”

And then Jesus takes a little child—probably much like any other child—helpless, vulnerable, and needy. And he says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.”

Earlier this morning we began to see how if we only view St. Francis as a sweet, slightly demented guy who preaches to birds, we miss the point of who he was and what he was about.  It’s the same way with the way that Jesus places a child in the middle of the discussion to make a point.  Children in Jesus’ day were not viewed as sweet and innocent and cute. They had no rights. They were not viewed as citizens. Some were viewed as useful, if they were able to help with work, but beyond that, they were mostly to be ignored until they grew up and could help with the work.

As Frederick Buechner puts it: “Jesus is saying that people who get into heaven are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than with their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves. Children can often tell the difference between a phony and the real thing. It is we who are distracted by appearances.”

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.” Somehow we find Christ in the midst of those who can give us nothing in return.

The first reading this morning also has something to say about distractions. From the Wisdom of Solomon, there is talk about the ungodly—but when you think about them, they’re really just people who are suffering from a major case of distraction. Not only do they enjoy the good gifts of God, they become distracted by them and begin to base their lives upon it. The ungodly become so distracted by their inflated sense of power and importance that they begin to grasp for more, and they oppress those who have less.

Greatness is a distraction. Importance is a distraction. The past can be a distraction. Dwelling too much in the future, can be a distraction.

If you notice in scripture, so often, as much as anything else, Jesus calls from distraction. He calls us to attention. He calls us to absolute attention. (Simone Weil would remind us that this, “absolute attention” is prayer.) Jesus calls into the present, the concrete, the real—the salty sea water underneath, the fresh, clean water from a well, the mud of the earth that becomes healing balm, the freshly caught fish – lunch for 5,000 or so. The bread, the wine, the water, the blood.

There’s a wonderful story about losing focus that comes from the Zen tradition.  It’s a story from the well-known collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.  Two monks were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross a large mud puddle stretching across the road.

“Come on, girl,” said one of the monks at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

The other monk didn’t say anything until later on.  After walking through rain, mile after mile, through the puddles and mud, they finally reached a lodging temple.  The younger monk could no longer resist saying something.  “Brother, you know that we monks don’t go near females–especially not young, lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

The older monk said nothing for a while and then looked at his friend.  “I left the girl there, hours and miles ago.  Why are you still carrying her?”

Over and over again, if we allow it, the words of Jesus, the presence of Christ, will disrupt our distractions, and like the prodigal son, we are brought to ourselves again. The love and power of Christ works on us and in us both through distractions and attentiveness. It creates unity, and so through the Spirit we are oned with Christ, and with Christ we are oned with the Creator.

Jesus wants us to know fully and clearly what the Gospel of Mark sometimes casts as a great secret—Jesus will die and rise again. We, on the other side of Easter, know this not as a secret but as a truth to be proclaimed throughout the world, even in Washington. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Even with all our distractions, we, as his body in the world, already have his life in us. In him, we die and rise again, in faith, in life, and in life eternal.

May God speak to us even in our distractions that we may be brought again and again to the unity that is love eternal.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 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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