Sermon for November 4th, 2018
It is so hard to pay attention to any one thing for very long anymore. I used to think that I just had an attention span problem, or that I was easily distracted, like a dog seeing a squirrel, but I am beginning to realize that being constantly distracted has become a way of life for the society we live in, it’s not just me.
There is so much competing for my attention every moment of every day. I get regular messages from my body telling me: it’s time to eat; it’s time to go to bed; you’re getting older; the weather is getting colder; rain is on the way.
I have family and friends that need my attention: who is sick or in the hospital? who is having a baby? when is supper going to be ready?
And then there is work: who am I meeting with today? did the contractor for this project show up? when was that report due?
And there are so many things in the world that I should be paying attention to: who is on the ballot on Tuesday? How long is this coffee pod going to sit in a landfill? what countries are at war with each other? how many people were killed this week in another act of hatred and violence?
As I bounce from one issue to another, there are all these voices I must contend with: buy this and your problems will be solved! take this drug and your pain and troubles will be over! vote for me and I will fix the world!
Technology, which can be great, only makes this problem 1000 times worse. I don’t know what’s more frustrating anymore: not having internet access, or having it. I’m constantly having to check what is true and what is not. Is this supposed news article true, or is it all twisted and taken out of context? Should I share this meme? Should I be outraged over some nonsense issue that everyone else seems to be outraged over? This Facebook post says that if I don’t repost it, then I just don’t care and am a horrible human being, am I obliged to repost it?
So many things, so many people, so many issues and they all want my attention. They all want to be first in my life. What do I do? What really needs to come first? It is a question I have to ask myself countless times a day. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. In fact, I know I’m not alone.
In our gospel today, a scribe walks up to Jesus and asks him: which commandment is first? Jesus, with so many issues and causes and rules and laws and traditions, all vying for my attention at any one moment, how am I to choose between them? How do I know what comes first?
And Jesus answered him with a verse from scripture: Deuteronomy 6: 4-9. If there was ever any one verse of scripture that is the bedrock of faith for both Jews and Christians, it’s this verse. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” or “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That is the first and great commandment that Jesus is referring to in the Summary of the Law that I say at the beginning of almost every mass here. Jews recite it in their prayer services twice a day. If you enter a Jewish home, or even my home, you may see a little thing attached to the doorpost with some Hebrew letters on it. It’s called a mezuzah, and inside is a little scroll with that scripture verse written on it. “…write them on your doorposts and on your gates.” It is a physical reminder that as we go and come in this world, this world with all of its distractions and anxieties, one thing and only one thing should come first: God.
The God of Jesus and the God of Moses (they are the same God I assure you), that God has given us this commandment that nothing else in our lives should come before our relationship with him. Loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, that must always come first. Even before loving our neighbors as ourselves. That second command is like the first; it flows from it, but it still comes second. Hear this Episcopalians, because we have a bad habit of thinking that we can teach people to love their neighbors without first teaching them to love God. We love talking about virtues and values and justice and love, but we get real uncomfortable sometimes when we have to talk about the source of all those things. But God must come first. The love of God must always come first. It doesn’t work the other way around, at least not for very long.
There was a 20thcentury philosopher named Will Durant who wrote that: “conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death.”
If our society is to survive, it must have people who know and understand and are committed to putting first the source of all that is good. We need people in this world that can boldly say no to all the other voices and concerns trying to distract them. We need people that are willing to sacrifice power, and money, and maybe even some of the respect of their peers, because they recognize that nothing is more powerful than God, nothing is more valuable, and no one’s respect is worth more than his respect. It is a tough call, but thanks be to God, in every generation there have been people who have risen to the task.
People like the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, urging their people not to put their trust in anything other than the power of their God. People like John the Baptist who understood that there is no greater danger than being separated from God. People like a little Jewish girl named Mary, whose life was so focused and centered on and open to God that he would find a home not just in her thoughts, but also in her womb.
Our tradition is filled with the stories of people who have had the guts to put God first. We are here today because countless ancestors heard and responded to God’s word to Moses. In a world filled with individuals and causes and philosophies and stuff, all pretending to be God, all vying for our attention, all trying to be first in our lives, there have been people that have been bold enough to say NO, I only have one God in this world, and that is the Lord. Everything else comes second to him. Everything.
Where would we be today without those people? If Paul had decided to just focus on his tentmaking and building his business, would we have heard about the resurrection? If Augustine of Canterbury had decided that Britain was just too dangerous or too scary, would we have heard about the God of Israel? What if Saint Cuthbert said that Scotland was too cold? What if Charles Wesley had decided that there was more money in writing secular songs and who would know what a Herald Angel was anyways? What if Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham had both decided that television was too expensive a medium to tell people about the love of God? or what if Sylvester Gildersleve and Francis Wilson had decided that other things in their lives were more important than trying to start a church in some country village outside of New York called Rockville Centre?
In every generation we need people that can say to their children and anyone else that will listen: we have only one God, and he always comes first. That is what you are being invited to do right now. You are being invited to put God first. To give God the first fruits of your labors, not your leftovers. You are being invited to recognize that God is the true source of everything good in your life and everything good in the world. We fill out our pledge cards in church today, in mass, because doing so is an act of faith. Giving to God here will mean that we will have to say no to some other things in our lives. The amount we give, well that is between each of us and God. God knows our hearts and God also knows our finances and circumstances. We give to God based on what he asks of us, not on what someone else is giving, or what we think our fair share of the electric bill here should be. We must always remember the widow whose one coin, was worth more than all the large sums given by those with great wealth.
Regardless of what numbers you write on this slip of paper this morning, know this: the most powerful thing that any of us can do to transform this world we live in or to shape the lives of our children or our children’s children, is to learn how to say no to all those other voices and distractions in the world and to say yes to putting God first.