17 Pentecost A—10/1/17
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Pr. Scott Kramer
Last Sunday we began our 9:00 a.m. study of “Living Buddha, Living Christ.” The book is written by a Buddhist monk who describes the many things that Buddhism and Christianity have in common. As I ponder these similarities I’ve reached the same conclusion as many other Christians that this is one of the most Christian books I’ve ever read!
One of many teachings the Buddha and Jesus have in common is warnings against distractions. Human nature, certainly in this modern world of rapid change, tempts us to be lost in the past or preoccupied with the future. The result is often confusion, fear, worry, regret and anger, none of which make much contribution either to our own well-being or the well-being of others. Buddhists emphasize what’s called mindfulness, the practice of focusing only on the present, being aware of what’s going on both inside and around us at any given moment. For both Christians and Buddhists, prayer and meditation are practices that keep us focused on the present and what matters most.
Jesus was a master of mindfulness, deeply aware of what was going on inside and around him. In our reading from Matthew, for example, he was aware of distractions. One day, troubled by the growing popularity of Jesus and his spiritual powers, some religious leaders approached him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” These religious folks were concerned primarily about control through traditions and institutions.
But Jesus wouldn’t play their game. Faith in God is not about maintaining traditions and institutions. It is, as he teaches in his story of the two brothers, about “doing the will of the Father,” which for Christians is always the daily practice of love. If our rituals, traditions and religious institutions don’t lead us more deeply into the practice of love, what good are they?
We are a distracted people, aren’t we?—Christians and non-Christians alike–checking our phones for the latest e-mail or text or tweet, bombarded by TV, radio, newspaper and internet news of natural disasters and other troubles; distracted…by the latest stupidities of our President. This past Thursday in the Seattle Times columnist Thomas Friedman had this to say: There was never a good time for Trump to be president. But this is a uniquely bad time for us to have a race-baiting, science-denying divider in chief. He is impossible to ignore, and yet reacting to his daily antics only makes us stupid—only makes our society less focused on the huge…challenges at hand.
Friedman speaks of being “less focused.” “Less focused” means “less mindful”—more distracted!
The best of all world religious traditions gives their followers spiritual tools that empower us to address not only the challenges we face personally but nationally and globally. Individuals who set aside distractions to focus on what matters most become a tremendous source for good and healing of the world God loves.
What matters most? It’s love. It’s always love. It’s only love! In our reading from Philippians St. Paul puts it this way:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
Did you hear that? Be of the same mind…be of one mind. This doesn’t mean we all agree on everything–that’s impossible! It does mean being mindful, recognizing and turning aside distractions, together paying attention to what matters most here and now–paying attention to the practice of love!
All of us are tempted by distractions. Two of the great distractions of our time are professional sports and nationalism–sometimes separately and often together. Sports can be a healthy outlet and national identity doesn’t have to be all-consuming but both of these have for many people become an unhealthy distraction from what really matters. Our college and professional sports stadiums are essentially temples of worship where congregations of people gather for mass rituals that include sacred hymns—the National Anthem–that glorify their team and country.
So last Sunday for me was remarkable. In Nashville, Tennessee, two NFL teams—the Tennessee Titans and our own Seattle Seahawks—decided not to be on the field for the playing of the National Anthem. For some, this was an outrage. For others—including me—it represented a breakthrough. Whether temporary or long-term time will tell but distractions at least for a moment were set aside and a focus on racial injustice and inequality took center stage. In a word, Christian love took center stage.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. This is a command from our God. This is what love looks like. And it doesn’t matter where love comes from: whether it’s a Buddhist monk, an NFL team, or you, or me. Wherever we find evidence of love, especially for the neighbor in need, there we find God’s presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Pay attention to what matters!” Jesus taught. Especially to religious people he said, Pay attention to love! And if we don’t, he promised, Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.
Dear friends, what we do here on Sunday morning is of no consequence at all if it doesn’t lead over time to transformed hearts and minds. As the prophets of old warned, God is not interested in our rituals and traditions unless they lead us ever more deeply into the practice of love.
Last Sunday different NFL teams responded in different ways. Some, like the Seahawks and Titans, delayed their entry onto the field. Others, black and white alike, knelt on the ground as a protest against injustice and inequality. In the end, kneeling is what you and I and all people will do, as St. Paul writes: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.” Paul’s words don’t mean that every person will become Christian. No, these words assure us that all of us, male and female, Buddhist and Christian and Muslim and Jewish, powerful and lowly, men and women, gay and straight, eventually, some day, will be won over and will willingly submit to the law of love.
As we heard again last week in the story of Jonah, God will never rest until every last person has been welcomed into the all-embracing, unconditional love of God. And like Jonah, God follows us even to the places where we choose to escape: to sports stadiums or political ideologies or even Sunday morning worship. God’s love follows us everywhere!
Dear friends, let us be ambassadors of God’s amazing grace, to let go of distractions, to practice mindfulness. Let us do unto others what Christ has done for us. Let us become ever more skilled in the practice of love!