Dodging Distractions

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I try to be careful when I’m walking on the sidewalk around scaffolding. I’m not so much afraid that something might fall from above. I’m more afraid that I might not pay attention and walk into a pole. That happened to a former parishioner of mine from another church.

When I saw him in midtown, he had what looked like a black eye. I asked him if he was ok, and he assured me he was. But then, laughing, he said, “It’s probably good I ran into you. I probably need to confess something.” Well, OK, I said. Do you want to come by the church, or have coffee, or what works? And he said, “Oh, no, nothing that formal– just right now. You see, I was walking down the street and I was staring at this beautiful woman. All of a sudden, “BAM”– I walked into a scaffolding pole.” We both laughed, and I suggested that perhaps he was already living his penance… but I’ve never forgotten that black eye and use it as a warning to walk carefully. Stay focused. Don’t get distracted.

Distractions get the best of all of us sometimes, don’t they? Whether it’s in the middle of a project, while riding on a bus or the subway, while talking to a friend, or maybe (if not especially) when we’re trying to pray. Perhaps we are distracted now—the sounds outside, the instant messages or pings on a smart phone or watch, the person across the room, the light coming through the windows, unfinished conversations, things left undone.

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.

I had new insight into this morning’s Gospel a few weeks ago, when I visited family in NC. One night we went to see my nephew and his family and see my great nephew, 2 years and 4 months old. I had planned to ask my nephew about his work, my niece-in-law’s work and family, possibly sneak in a subtle question about baptism… you know. Also, I think we all had some intention of talking about plans around Christmas. But there was not time or space or energy for that—because a two-year-old was in charge.

Though children are seen and heard in ways today that they were not in Jesus’s day, I think Jesus was trying to focus his disciples in a similar way.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus has been trying to tell the disciples something vitally important, but the disciples were distracted. Jesus and the disciples were 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?

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.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s hard for me to live in the present, in this very moment, without being distracted by either the past or the future. I love the past (as I have reconstructed it, of course).

Dwelling in the past, I can hold on to old resentments, continuing to build the case to justify myself. I can replay heroic actions, like watching a videotape of me, again and again and again.

Or I live in the future. Maybe you do that too—we live in that place where we finally have the right job, where we finally meet the right person, when we finally have the right apartment or house, or ——- you can fill in the blank.

When I think of my own tendency to be so easily distracted, I can begin to understand some of what the disciples must have been dealing with. Jesus dispels the distractions of the disciples 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.”

So often, Jesus calls his disciples and us to pay attention. Notice. Jesus calls into the present, the concrete, the real—that’s why so often in his stories, Jesus uses 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. The bread, the wine, the water, the blood.

We have a song in our hymnal that sums up this ministry of prayerful presence, hymn simply called, “Now.” It sings,

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;
Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;
Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Now, now, now.
(The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)

Teresa of Avila, the 16th century nun and mystic, knew the overwhelming force of distraction. As she put it in the Way of Perfection, she felt it her calling to offer a little guidance to those with “souls and minds so scattered that they are like wild horses no one can stop.” And so she offers a kind of prayer, a method of prayer, if you will, that has been called the practice of “recollection.” Teresa reminds us that the most important aspect of prayer—whether it’s at the beginning, it’s distracted and frustrated middle, and even at its ending—is to remember that God is near. God is very, very near. It’s that simple and it’s that difficult: God is near.

We have prayer. We have people. We have nature. We have NOW.

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 New York.
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.

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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