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As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good newsmust first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.

‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Mark 13, NRSV

Preached Sunday, March 18, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman

The chief sin of modern American Christianity is one Jesus warned us about. It’s a sin that sneaks up on us and weaves its wily tentacles around us before we know. It’s a sin that bargains with us and argues with us, one that parades around in front us and yet we seem so blind to. It’s a wolf is sheep’s clothing, a cancer on our faith.

It’s has nothing to do with perceived marital ethics—where Marriage is between one man and one woman or not. It’s not one of the laundry list of rules and regulations found in Leviticus or on the stone tablets that held the Ten Commandments. It’s one that is so simple that we miss it.

The chief sin of American Christendom is the sin of distraction.  I’m not talking about the idle flicking through social media on your phone, although that comes with its own issues. Nor am I talking about going into the kitchen to find a snack, getting distracted by the dishes, then leaving the kitchen without your snack. Have you done something like that before?

I’m talking about allowing ourselves to become distracted from the things that matter. Week by week, day by day, it seems to be easier and easier to fall prey to distraction. Right now, it seems like a tweet is all it takes to change an entire news cycle.

If I had to sum up the entirety of Mark 13, I’d offer three words: don’t get distracted. You see, Jesus is just leaving the temple after a chapter long battle of wits with the religious authorities of the day. He’s hot—not the sexy kind of hot, but keyed up hot—and he’s on a tear. Walking out of the Temple, I can nearly hear him shouting, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Don’t get distracted.

Later, sitting in the shade of ancient olive trees, he warns the disciples against false prophets—those who might lead them down the wrong path. “Beware,” he says, “that no one leads you astray.” There’ll be wars, he tells them, and rumors of wars. Don’t be alarmed. It’s only the beginning. Don’t get distracted.

Jesus tells them of coming persecution—of how families will be set against each other. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved,” he advises. Don’t get distracted.

“And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it,” he continues, “False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens to lead you astray. Be alert. I have already told you everything.”

Don’t get distracted.

He warns of the drama—of suffering, of the darkened sun and moon, of how stars will fall from heaven. Still, don’t get distracted.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but words will not pass away,” he proclaims. Don’t get distracted.

“Beware, Keep alert….keep awake,” Jesus instructs.

Don’t get distracted.

So, we get it. Don’t get distracted. But from what? What is it that we should turn our focus to every time we feel that familiar pull to pay attention to something else?

A few weeks ago, we explored the two commands Jesus lifted above the rest. Do you remember what the two were? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself.  At their core, we could sum it up this way: Love God. Love People.

How’s this for a seven word sermon? Love God. Love People. Don’t get distracted.

That about covers it. I can sit down now. But I won’t.

I wish it were that simple— just don’t get distracted, but the truth is it isn’t. As I was making my way through this entire chapter of Mark, it kind of felt like he was writing about our world today. It’s 37 verses of division and uncertainty. It’s practically an entire chapter of warning—beware of false prophets and false messiahs. Welp, we’ve got a few leaders in the world today who are promising a lot more than they’re delivering on. You’ll hear of wars and rumors of wars—Have you kept up with North Korea? Or Russia poisoning a private citizen in Britain? 

It makes you pause and wonder if there’s something about the human condition that has made this particular chapter resonate so deeply with millennia worth of Christian faithful. Why is it that these warnings seem as apropos today as they did when this passage was written?

I scoured these words for something besides fearful warning. And there, tucked into 23, after another reminder to “be alert” is this line: “I have already told you everything.” You could take that to mean that Jesus has already told us how it’s all going to go down. But it could also mean that he’s already told us what it’s all about. In fact, he did it just a chapter before. Love God. Love People. Don’t get distracted. If that’s all you do, you’re good.

So, how do we do that? How do we love God and love people while not becoming distracted? Well, first we show up—we make a point to come together week in and week out to refocus on what’s important. Each week, we gather her and re-orient our lives to God. And we approach our common life with one central question: what helps us open our arms wider to each other? Then that’s what we do. By opening our arms wider, expanding our welcome, we are loving people. And by loving people—the very ones God created and called good—we are loving God.

A few days ago, I came across an article by Erin White about Norman, a man in her congregation who died. After his death, she was surprised to discover that her friend was Norm Baker, a world-renown explorer who once crossed the Atlantic on a reed raft.  Here’s what she had to say about that revelation:

Maybe the real reason I didn’t know anything about Norman’s adventures was that mostly we didn’t talk. We listened. We sang. We stood in a circle. We created, along with everyone around us, that thing called church.

This is what I did know about Norman: I knew what it felt like to hold his hand, how it was strong and a little papery, warm but never sweaty. I knew that when you hugged him you had to bend down a little bit but could feel free to squeeze as tightly as you liked. I knew that his wife had died of cancer, and that every year on her birthday people from the church set out in canoes across the town pond in what they called a memorial flotilla, to paddle and laugh and remember her on the water. She died the year before I met Norman. But I still knew her, because of church.

Last year, after I made an announcement about a coat drive for refugee families, Norman brought me a box of his father’s old suit coats. “Oh Norm,” I thought when I opened the box. “Syrian refugees don’t need your father’s old coats.” But I sorted through them anyway, looked at the fancy labels of the Brooklyn tailors, the lovely silk linings, the thick worn wool. I put them in with all the ski jackets and anoraks. I accepted his offering.

When you are part of a church you accept people’s offerings, even the ones you don’t necessarily want. One week their announcements will bore you and the next week they will make you weep, and sometimes it will be the same announcements. And sometimes during a hymn they’ll start a harmony and you’ll join, and your voices will become a conversation, an expression of love between people who by many measures barely know each other at all.

Here’s what I know, friends: it’s easy to become distracted by silly things—things that don’t matter. Whether we’ve prayed for long-dead cats too many times or if we’ve heard one too many announcements about painting pews. It’s easy to think paint colors are more important than the way we care for each other or that whether we take communion in the pews or up here by the communion table is more important that the story the feast tells us in the first place.  Those are distractions. Don’t get distracted.

It’s easy for us to get distracted by politics—local or national. The way this town has been talking about curbside trash pickup has baffled me. I’m all for acting locally—for showing up and participating in the political process. But let’s not get distracted from the fact that there are people in our own town—up this very street—who don’t know what they are going to eat for supper. There are people who can’t worry about the cost of trash pick up because they are making a choice between paying their sky-rocketing rent, getting their car fixed so they can get to work, or buying the medications that keep them alive. Don’t get distracted.

It’s easy to get distracted by how people look—whether they look like us or dress like us or love like us. Just answer the question: What opens our arms wider to those people—the ones who don’t look like us or dress like us or love like us? Then do that. And don’t get distracted.

God knows I’m the worst at it—bouncing from here to there, from project to project, priority to priority, facebook notification to facebook notification. Did you know pastors preach to themselves more than they preach to their congregations? And this sermon is no different. Don’t get distracted, Jon. And don’t get distracted Westfield. For God’s sake, for the sake of this world God created and his son saved—Love God. Love people.

And don’t get distracted.

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