St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."
This week on Wednesday we gather here in this room the celebrate A Renewal of Ministry and the Welcome the New Rector. Quite the mouthful. As we venture into this new “official” status of our relationship. And it has gotten me to reminiscing.
Last night I was telling my daughter about my first Sunday as a priest. I was ordained on a Saturday, and the next day our interim Rector texted me to let me know she had lost her voice and that I was flying solo on my first day out of the gate. No pressure. I made a few mistakes, but in one instance that day, I know God was with me.
Now as Episcopalians, we know when we come to receive Communion, we usually do one of two things. If we want a blessing, we cross our arms in front of our chest. If we wish to partake in Communion, we place our hands together in an X making a cross and I place the wafer or pinch of bread there. Now our brothers and sisters coming from the Catholic Church often do not realize they can touch the host, and will often stick out their tongue to receive. This is much easier with a wafer than with bread, let me tell you. Well this particular Sunday, when I was trying to so hard to not get distracted and not to mess up, I know God was with me.
One of our parishioners was a former Catholic and still liked receiving on his tongue. He was also from a group home around the corner from the church, and often it was easier to give him the bread on his tongue than try to explain to him how we do it in the Episcopal Church.
So here he was at the altar rail, and as I came to him, I looked down at him to see his outstretched tongue. I was used to this from my time as a deacon there. I go to place the bread on his tongue, and out pop his dentures looking like the Alien’s tongue from the movie (Alien).
I know God was with me because I did not scream. What a distraction! Luckily, my composure was kept, and I was able to continue on serving.
Speaking of distractions, our texts are exactly that, examples of distractions from what should have the majority of our focus and attention. Three years ago, when I preached on these texts, it was the week of the presidential election, and I was preaching in Liverpool at St. Gabriel’s. I remember how distracted we were as a nation. I shared that for the previous several months the USA had been focused and fixated on what should be minor attractions instead of the center stage of our lives. I shared how the election had divided our communities, our churches, and our families. I even when on to say with some relief that the week would see an end to the distractions, and by Wednesday, the election of the United States president will be over. Little did I realize how the division and distractions would only escalate. God help us. That is one of the main reasons that our prayer service last week gave me hope. It kept the main thing the main thing.
When we major in the minors, when we let our focus be on the things that do not matter in long run, and probably should not matter at all, we get away from the lives God would have us live. So many things can derail us spiritually. Our health. Our economic situation. Our politics. Bad clergy-people. Whatever is a distraction to myself or any of you is a hindrance to our spiritual lives.
In Haggai, the prophet declares that God wants them to “Take courage.” Fear can be a huge distraction. In fact, I think one of the major ills in our nation since the 9/11 attacks. We have become a fearful nation. We have learned and had reinforced to not trust our neighbor, and to trust the stranger in our midst even less. One of our great presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression, these famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Haggai says to his people the same thing. Do not be distracted by your fear! Or from the Scripture: “I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear!”
There have been times in my life when I have been afraid. Terrified in fact. And I think of the times when I chose to cower and give into my fear. Those are the times when I remember being most defeated. This situation did not defeat me, but my choosing to cower was a defeat of who God made me to be. There were other times when I was afraid and I stood up, and took a stand. Sometimes I triumphed, and sometimes I failed. But when I took courage and made a stand, I may have failed, but I was not a failure. I could say I had done my best, with what I had, and I did not hang my head. Fear is an enemy of who God is calling us to be. “Fear not!” says the Lord.
But Paul in Second Thessalonians looks at another distraction, deception. One of the problems of religious people in general is that we are believers. Believing in God is good, but believing anyone who comes along is not. Some of us err on the skeptical side of belief, and some of us err on the side of TB, and we have a raging case of True Believer-ism. But both of the extremes still fall on the side of believing, and that can set us up for being tricked, conned, cajoled, and hoodwinked. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, and that is a hindrance of who God would have us be as well. It is, I believe, the shadow side of belief.
And here we are, almost 2,000 years later, still awaiting Christ’s return. Paul had to quell the excitement of this anticipation in the early days of the Church.
“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way...”Tricksters are out there. Jesus commanded us to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:3 It is an issue which we have been warned that we will have to deal with. Even in the election three years ago, BOTH SIDES had Christians claiming that God is for their candidate and only their side is righteous. Tricksters and charlatans. Still with us, and, sadly, I think they always will be. We need to not be distracted by those that would derail our walk with Christ, and in Christ, and for Christ.
But fear and deception are not our only distraction, we also have the hurdle of nit-pickiness to overcome. Yes, nit-pickiness. Sometimes we zoom in on such small things that make no sense when we see things from the outside. I would call them pharisaical, but they were Sadducees. The Sadducees were attempting to play Gotcha! with Jesus. Could they catch him being, in their minds, stupid? They are seeing if this young Rabbi is worth his reputation. They are playing theoretical theology. “What if…?” But Jesus calls them on it, he reproaches them for their hypocrisy and their attempt to distract him. Others there wanted to learn and grow in their faith, and the Sadducees are playing games. The problem with their question is on whether the legalism on this side of heaven continues on into the next. They even could have been mocking Jesus, in that he, like the Pharisees believed in an afterlife. The Sadducees did not believe in anything coming after this life. With their ridiculous question, they are making fun of this belief and those who hold it. But even there, Jesus does not reject them, but raises the level of conversation, showing their foundational denial of the afterlife is a problem. Jesus goes back to Moses, who speaks of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Living, not of the dead. We might phrase in the New Testament language of the God who was and is and is to come, or Jesus being the same yesterday, today and forever. This distraction of diverting Jesus from what is most important is something that can happen to us in our spiritual lives, as well.
Paul McCartney in his love song “Distractions,” from his wonderful Flowers in the Dirt solo album, questions why he gets sidetracked and drawn away from the one who holds his heart:
Why are there always so many other things to do?Is it not the same with God? What draws us away from seeking first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness? I think all of us would have a different answer.
Distractions, like butterflies are buzzing 'round my head,
When I'm alone I think of you
And the life we'd lead if we could only be free
From these distractions.
Every New Year I will probably talk about taking inventory. I said it before and I will probably say it again. Look at your calendar and your bank and credit card statements. Those will show you what you hold most important. Where is God’s church on your priorities? How about your daily agenda? Do you make space for God? That is often the easiest and first thing to go when we get busy and have our days taken away from us. I have found though, when the day gets at its worst, I need more to pray and listen, and to find God in Scripture. Like all things that are good for us, we mostly know what we should do, but these temptations and distractions that get in our way.
My daughter Sojo is a very bright and capable young lady. She is quick to make connections, but early in her life she had to overcome some hurdles that most of us do not need to overcome. Her learning style is as unique as she is, and often she is wondering about time travel or quantum physics when I am asking her what she wants for lunch. She is just so curious that she cannot help but follow a mental rabbit if it goes running by her consciousness. So, if I am making her lunch, or whatever it is, my wife and I have found a phrase that draws her back. Instead of correcting her, we simply ask, “Are you with me, Sojo?” In preparing for today, I could see the smile on God’s face and how often he has had to ask of me, “Rock, are you with me?” “Rock, hello Rock, are you with me?” And God asks the same of all of us. In the midst of all the things that distract us, often good, important things, we hear God ask, “Are you with me?” Seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness and all these things shall be added unto to you. I believe God means it. If we put God first, everything else will fall into place. Amen