There is a brand of jigsaw puzzles that goes by the name “World’s Most Difficult,” and I was looking at some examples of their products this week. They are 500 piece puzzles, with the same image printed both on the back and on the front, and all the pieces are an identical shape. One of them features perhaps 40 or 50 multicolored hot-air balloons all next to each other, and another is a very large group of Dalmatians who might as well just be a big swimming pool of white with black spots.
With nearly any jigsaw puzzle, the differing shapes of the pieces are a big help in deciding what fits where, and at least you can tell which side is up and which is down. But with the World’s Most Difficult puzzles, it becomes more important than ever to rely on the completed picture on the box. Keep looking at those finished balloons: just exactly where is the red stripe next to the green stripe with a tiny sliver of blue sky supposed to fit in? Without knowing how it is all supposed to end up, what the final image is, the puzzle will never get finished.
As Deacon Chris mentioned last week, as we close out the green season and get ready for Advent, our lectionary has been asking us to turn our attention to passages about the authority and judgment of God, and to the second coming of Christ. It’s common to hear people remark that these passages seem negative, and that it’s kind of a downer to hear words about the end of history, global crises, and divine judgment.
Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
I recently read an article by English writer Andrew Sullivan in the magazine “The Week”. In it he says, “The internet is killing us. We’ve become slaves to our devices and it’s altering our essential humanness.” Sullivan is a conservative political commentator currently living in the Washington DC area. He has been an editor and writer for several publications, though is perhaps best known as a pioneer in developing one of the first political blogs. Quoting from that article, “Sullivan spent more than a decade living in the web, waking each day to consume and produce an endless barrage of news and tweets and memes before he realized that his desire for nonstop information was destroying his relationships and jeopardizing his health. Every hour he spent on line meant one hour less spent in the physical world. Multi-tasking was a mirage. He could no longer read a book for more than a few minutes; his fingers would start twitching for a keyboard or a screen to scroll.”
Now, according to Sullivan, the web saturation, that led him to feel increasingly removed from the real world, is becoming the default for the rest of us. “Just look around you,” he says, “and you’ll see social media junkies everywhere, heads bent to the glow of their phones. In the coffee shop, at the playground, around the dinner table, we have gone from looking up to constantly looking down. We are addicted to distraction.
We are addicted to distraction.
Now less you think I am an old fogy who does not understand modern things, I will admit that I have grown quite fond of my smart phone. I do check it often and I say most happily that it has helped me dramatically in finding places and not getting lost! It is a most useful tool. This article, from the November 4 issue of the Week, “How the web almost killed me” speaks to one person’s overuse of the tool and comments on what he sees it meaning for the world around him. It is interesting reading his story and seeing how he was able to change his focus.
Thinking through history there have been other times when some major change in the way society works has produced dire predictions. In my lifetime the other big one was television though going back even further, the development of the printing press or translating the Bible into vernacular languages also brought angst to cultural critics. Each new way of doing things meant some difficulty for the world in making the change. This response is really not all that new even though the technology of the moment is. Why I am mentioning this today, on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost is because of the last sentence of the portion I quoted from Sullivan’s article, when he said, “We are addicted to distraction.”
This is a timeless reality of humankind, I think. We seek distraction. Our minds tend to go to whatever is new and our attention, well, our attention is much like a kid on Halloween, quickly going from one house to another. What was being discussed in great detail last month is forgotten with the next new event. And of course, like other things, the bell curve applies to flickering attention spans too. Some of us can, and do, concentrate longer than others. But Sullivan’s remark is true. Human beings are now, and I will add, have always been, easily distracted.
In part perhaps this is a reason for why it is important to come to church regularly, to keep bringing our focus to God and what is most important in life.
We are fast approaching the end of the liturgical year and the darkest part of the natural seasons, at least in this part of the world; the days just keep getting shorter. At this time of year the lectionary focus turns to the Parousia, the time of Jesus’ return to earth.
The lessons can be difficult to hear and digest and todays are no exception. While we acknowledge in every Eucharist that Christ will come again, probably that is not something we usually spend much time thinking about. Depending on our age and circumstances, we may or may not think about our own death; and if we do our attention is usually quickly drawn away. Yet each year, through these lessons, we are reminded in no uncertain terms, that Christ will come again; the world as we know it will end.
Of course there are times when the truth of death and life, is crystal clear. Rather than just briefly acknowledging it in our minds, we know it with our entire self. For some of us this may be at a funeral of a loved one, or a change in life circumstances, such as a move or a retirement. Sometimes it can be a small act like measuring a child’s growth on the doorframe or seeing wrinkles on a dear friend’s face. There are all types of ways it may happen, that you have a moment of becoming acutely aware that our time on this earth is finite; that each day is not exactly the same as the one before. These moments of clear focus remind us that our lives on earth will end and perhaps, for a moment anyway, cause us to reflect on our lives’ purpose.
This is what I think the central message from the lessons today is. God, through his son and through his prophets, is telling us to get our priorities straight. We do not have forever to put things off. There is a strong urgency that comes through these passages this morning. The challenge for us modern day Christians can be to pay attention and hear the urgency they express.
In the readings from Malachi and Luke, the message of the “great and terrible day of the Lord” is clearly spelled out. The days leading to this are depicted as times of destruction. The wicked will be burned; there will be great earthquakes; nations will fight against nation; there will be famines and plagues. In some ways it sounds like we are reading the current news.
The problem is that it has seemed so to every generation that has heard these words. And so maybe people have stopped listening. Our attention goes elsewhere. We are easily distracted. Jesus knew this about human beings and he specifically addresses that human trait in the morning’s gospel.
In this passage the time is nearing the crucifixion. Jesus and his followers are in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he is teaching. This place was stunning. It was immense and filled with beautiful things, gold, silver, jewels. It had been built after the Jews return from exile around 515 BC to replace Solomon’s temple. In the time of Jesus, Herod the Great was enlarging and refurbishing this second temple. Rather than doing this out of his love for God, though, he hoped to have his name remembered forever through this structure.
The Temple was at the heart of Jewish identity. It contained the holiest of holies. And it was the place where all Jews who were able, would gather for major feasts. Three times a year, the city’s population would swell to about a million people. It is estimated that the outer courts of the Temple could hold 400,000 people. Some of the stones of the structure weighed up to 400 tons! It was both massive and beautiful. No wonder those accompanying Jesus in Jerusalem would have admired it and commented on it. And yet Jesus knew that even it was a distraction.
The destruction that Jesus foretold in this gospel passage did happen. The Temple was torn down by Roman soldiers around 70 AD, which was about the same time as the gospels were being written down. And we know from our view point that Jesus’ second coming did not happen then, though it is understandable why those early disciples might have thought the two events would be tied together.
Notice that when Jesus tells the disciples that the Temple will be torn down their first response is to ask when this will happen. What will be their sign that the end is near? As Jesus is fond of doing he does not answer those questions but rather tells them not to be led astray. Don’t be distracted by all the talk and all the false signs. Rather stay focused on me and my message.
The passage ends, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In the verses after today’s passage Jesus continues with this hope filled message as he reminds us that God’s faithful people should lift their heads and expect resurrection and redemption.
What Jesus is saying is not easy, but it is true and it is real. He asks us to remain level-headed regardless of what is happening around us and not to speculate about when the end will come. Just know that at some point it will. In the meanwhile, Jesus is the example of how we are to live. Remember that at this point in the gospels we are near the climax of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And yet Jesus’ actions show that he is not worrying about that. Rather he continues to teach, to preach, to heal and to encourage others to see God and God’s kingdom. All around him people are trying to work out what will happen and what they should do about it or how they might change what is going to happen. Jesus himself remains fully in touch with his Father and continues with his work on earth. Nothing can cause distraction from this. Jesus remains focused on the Father and the purpose he has been given in his life on earth.
For God’s people the command remains the same. Regardless of what is happening in our world around us, whether sick or well, whether rich or poor, whether up or down, or even whether our candidate won or lost, we are to remember the truth we are grounded on. We are to faithfully, day by day, grow in the love and knowledge of Jesus. This is our goal, our purpose, our focus.
Today’s wonderful collect uses the phrase, “embrace and ever hold fast” which sounds so much more Anglican than focus, doesn’t it? We are called today to embrace and ever hold fast to our Lord.
When terrible things happen, as they will, we are reminded to see these as opportunities to be Jesus witness, to tell others of His love for them. And perhaps we might even use the internet to do that! Remember it is a tool, avoid its distraction. Jesus tells us to stay the course, remember our priorities, embrace and ever hold fast to Him.
And then Jesus tells us that when he does come again, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” In all of life’s ups and downs, be at peace for; Jesus is with us; he is our foundation, our hope and our strength. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
On the cover of our bulletin today, you can see some of the more famous saints: Teresa, Benedict, Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, all gathered around the Blessed Virgin Mary who is holding Jesus up right at the center, where he belongs. It’s a great image, and it could easily have hundreds more people in it. After all, these are just the big names! If you ever looked at the multi-volume “Lives of the Saints” book, as you might have if you went to Catholic school, you’d run into all sorts of obscure characters. Their stories, especially the ones you would have heard if you went to Catholic school before Vatican II, are colorful, even bizarre: the kind of thing that’s just guaranteed to capture the imagination of children.
So you might have learned about St. Sebastian, who was tied to a tree and shot through with arrows when he said he was a Christian. Maybe you were assigned a brief essay on St. Zita, who they say was helped by angels not to burn the bread she was supposed to be baking. Or maybe you had to draw a picture of St. Lawrence, who, when the Romans demanded to see all the treasure of the Church, took them to a Christian shelter for the sick and the poor, and then when they decided to roast him over a fire for his trouble, allegedly joked to his murderers, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side."