Sunday, June 28, 2015

Phil Kniss: The church that pays attenti—squirrel!!

Debugging the faith: Distracted Christianity
Luke 10:38-42; Hebrews 4:1-11; Psalm 95; Genesis 1:31-2:3

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If you saw the 2009 animated Disney movie, “Up!”
    you know what inspired my sermon title.
    It’s the hilarious repeated scenes throughout the movie,
        where the talking dog is having an intense conversation,
            and in mid-sentence hears something,
            and his whole body jerks toward the sound,
                as he hollers, “Squirrel!!”

It’s funny because real dogs do that all the time (without the talking).
    In fact, working dogs are trained to resist distraction,
        by making a fake squirrel cross their path.
    They get a treat, if they stay on task,
        and don’t go after the squirrel.
    Dogs distracted by squirrels
        are now a cultural symbol of distraction.

So today I conclude this 3-part series on Christian viruses
    by reflecting on distraction in the Christian experience,
        in the life of the individual,
        and in the life of the church.

Church-going Christians in our day are highly prone
    to the virus of distraction.
    It is epidemic.

There’s a couple reasons I’d point out.
    One is simply the 21st-century culture we live in.
I hardly need to say much about this reality.
    Books have been written about it.
    PhDs have been earned researching it.
    Everyone of us knows it intuitively.
        The rapid growth of personal technology has changed us;
            it has sent our culture into a chronic state of distraction.

With no hint of personal judgement, at all, I’ll just say,
    I’m confident at least 75% of you sitting here listening to me
        have in your pocket or purse or belt-clip right now,
        a device, turned on, at the ready,
            in case someone sends you a message,
            or in case you want to check the news.
    And if, hypothetically, I offered to bet someone $1,000,
        that since the Call to Worship this morning,
        at least one person in this sanctuary
            has already checked their Facebook,
        could I find anyone willing to bet against me?

    Like I said, I’m not implying any personal wrongdoing here.
        It has become a truly normal part of daily life,
            hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute,
                no matter where we are,
            to be connected, online, available,
                ready for the next ding or buzz or vibration
                    to distract us from what we are now doing,
                    in order to take in what someone else,
                        somewhere else,
                        completely out of our context,
                        thinks we ought to know.

    You all know that I’m not a Luddite. Far from it.
        I take my smart phone everywhere I go.
        I use it regularly to stay connected.
        Usually, when I preach, it’s clipped on my belt,
            turned on, but in vibrate mode.
    This morning I left it in my office.
        Just because . . . I thought I should.
    I know that sometimes my phone is a distraction.
        It either keeps me from, or delays me from,
            being fully present with the ones I am with.

And when it comes to big, watershed moments in public life,
    like Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage,
        smart phones are a quick and easy path to distraction,
            and over-reaction.
    On my phone I’ve seen postings by my Christian friends,
        that make grandiose claims
        about what God had to do with Friday’s ruling—
            either that the Justices (or at least five of them)
                were acting as ministers of God,
                ushering in God’s kingdom of peace and justice;
            or that the court majority was mocking God,
                and bringing our nation to the brink of hell.

    But you know . . .
        it’s one thing how the civil institution of marriage
            is defined by law,
            and what benefits—financial and legal—derive from it.
        It’s the job of the court to ensure all human beings
            are treated justly and fairly under the law.
            And we ought to care about those things.

    But it’s a very different matter for the church
        to discern how to appropriately administer
        the rite of Christian marriage in the life of the church.
    That’s a different conversation.
        And we don’t go to court to have that conversation.
        We go to each other in the body of Christ.
            And speak honestly. And listen prayerfully.
            And pay attention to each other and to God.

    I think if I spent any more time scanning Facebook or Twitter
        absorbing people’s reactions to this,
        the virus of distraction would overtake me.
    How much better if I would gather with people of faith
        with whom I have real relationships,
            and even real disagreements,
        and together ponder and pray and discuss,
            trusting God to be present with us all,
            in the new reality we now live in.

    When it comes to technology and social media,
        I know its potential for good.
        And its potential for harm.
    I try to maximize the former, and minimize the latter.
        But I am not always successful.

    And like most of us here, I’m a carrier of this virus.
        We need some communal Christian practices
            to keep the virus of distraction from spreading,
            and doing permanent damage to our health,
                our relationships,
                our faith.

The most important practice—
    the foundational practice
        that underlies many other practices we could talk about—
    is the practice of paying attention.

That seems so simple. It’s not.
    It’s not like when my teacher said to me,
        when I was daydreaming in class,
        “Philip, pay attention!”
    All I needed to do at that point,
        was turn my face toward the teacher,
            make eye contact,
            and listen to the words coming out of her mouth.
    But I could do all that,
        and still not pay attention.

Paying attention is way more than good listening skills.
    Listening is part of it.
    But giving my attention to someone,
        is literally attending to that person,
            being with, being fully present,
            giving heed, focusing ourselves outwardly,
            orienting ourselves to the other.
    To pay attention to another
        is to suspend our desires and impulses,
        in order to attend to the needs of another.

The verb, “to attend,” or to “pay attention,”
    had two Latin roots—
        the first is “ad” (A-D), meaning “toward.”
        the second “tendere” meaning “to stretch.”
    So the origin of “to attend” is the phrase, “to stretch toward.”

    I picture someone with feet planted firmly,
        straining to reach as far as they can toward someone else,
            or toward God.
    Paying attention is reaching out toward the other,
        with our feet grounded.
        Hence, the need to stretch.
    Being attentive to God and to others is, literally, a posture.

This is where the difference between attention and distraction,
    becomes so clear.
    When we pay attention, our feet are still, are grounded.
    When we are distracted, our feet are nervously moving
        all over the place, as if on hot coals,
        never able to experience the present place and time.

Paying attention could be seen as a gift of hospitality.
    Being hospitable is not something only the host does.
    When I am invited to come in to someone else’s space,
        I need to be a hospitable guest,
        to open myself to the host, and say, “Here I am,
            I am open to receive what you have for me.”
    The line between host and guest is often blurred.
        As it was for Jesus, and Mary, and Martha,
            in today’s Gospel reading from Luke.

Jesus opened himself to his friends who were hosting him.
    And Mary, one of the hosts,
        paid full attention.
        Stretched toward Jesus.
        Was not distracted.
    Martha, her sister, was gently chided by Jesus—
        not for being in the kitchen, but for being distracted.
        Martha suffered from the virus.
        She allowed distraction to keep her from being fully present
            with Jesus, and with her sister.
        And she let this distraction become the main thing.
            It made her anxious.
            It made her judgmental.
            It made her unable to hear Jesus.
        So Jesus—
            attending both to Mary and Martha—
            said, with all the love in the world,
                “Martha, Martha,
                    you are distracted,
                    you are worried about many things,
                    enter into my rest.”

Which brings me to another related anti-viral communal practice,
    to ward off infection caused by the distraction virus—
        that is, Sabbath rest.

And let me just say,
    I don’t care a whit about a rules-based Sabbath—
        how far you can walk on the Sabbath,
        which forms of labor, or commerce, or sports, or entertainment,
            are permitted on the Sabbath.
    Because as soon as we start focusing on rules,
        we start putting our energy into defining,
            and arguing about, the exceptions,
        and we forget about the purpose.

I want to talk about Sabbath the way scripture does—
    as a wonderful gift from God,
    as the pathway God offers us that leads to full life—
        if we choose to accept it, rejoice in it, be wise stewards of it.

We—that is, 21st-century, North American, Protestant, Christians—
    just don’t get Sabbath.
    We have been given a beautiful gift of God,
        and have ignored it, to our peril,
        and to the result of living chronically distracted lives.

The divine gift of Sabbath is established in the Creation story itself,
    as we heard this morning.
    “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good . . .
    By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing;
        so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
        Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.”

    God rested, not because
        God decided that would be a good rule for humans,
        and to show humans how to obey that rule.
    God rested, because God could,
        because God believed the work accomplished was enough.
        In fact, it was plenty.
        In fact, it was good . . . it was very good.
    So God showed all creation another good thing—
        rest, and trust.

    God trusted creation to do what he created it to do,
        so God stepped back,
        didn’t tinker with it,
        didn’t try to improve on it,
        didn’t try to manage or control it,
        just let it be good.
    The Creator rested.
        And thus established a life-giving pathway for all creation.

God’s gift to us, is the gift of enough.
    We don’t have to swallow the world’s false story
        of scarcity and anxiety and accumulation,
        to borrow the words of Walter Brueggemann.
    We can rest, as a pure gift of the grace of God.
    Seven days of goodness and abundance,
        for six days of work.
    What a deal!

Sabbath creates the needed space for paying attention.
    Just as God rested on day seven—
        while surveying the goodness of the creation,
            and exulting in that goodness—
        so we can enjoy a Sabbath rest,
            to attend to the goodness of God,
                and the abundant grace given to us, God’s beloved.
    Sabbath allows us to pay attention, to attend, to stretch . . .
        toward God, toward others, toward Creation itself.

I think one big reason for our neglect of Sabbath rest,
    is a deficiency of trust in God’s goodness.
    We don’t trust there will be enough—
        enough money, enough time, enough opportunity,
            enough goodness to go around.
    So we can’t rest. We might miss something.
        We might miss an opportunity to gain a little ground.
        We’re not content to stand still, feet planted,
            and stretch out our hands toward the Great Provider.
    Not practicing Sabbath rest and trust,
        makes paying attention all the more difficult,
        and virtually guarantees a life full of distraction.

That’s what we heard described about God’s people in the Psalm,
    and the reading from Hebrews.
    They couldn’t rest in God.
    God had generously provided all they needed for life.
        But out of anxiety, a fear of scarcity,
            they could not enter God’s rest.
        At Meribah and Massah, in the wilderness,
            despite God generously and miraculously
                providing them freedom from slavery,
            they were unable to trust God to provide them water.

    The writer of Hebrews saw that O.T. story as a prototype.
        And he wrote to the New Testament church,
            “Some of you are doing the same thing.”
        God offers us deep rest. Trust God enough to enter it.
    I think the letter writer’s words apply just as much to us today,
        “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God;
            for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works,
            just as God did from his.
        Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.”

This penchant we have to rush, to strive, to accumulate,
    to take control of our surroundings, to self-protect,
        leads to a life of chronic anxiety, and chronic distraction.
    It leads to a kind of spiritual ADHD.
        I’m not disparaging those with a diagnose of ADHD.
        That’s a real condition, that challenges many people,
            but also brings out a positive, high-energy,
                and creative spirit for many.

    Rather, what I’m talking about is a spiritual way of being,
        brought about by our human condition,
        and our culture’s worship of productivity,
            measuring our worth by how much we accomplish.
    So in our rush to be all things to all people,
        and to provide every possible opportunity for ourselves,
            and our families,
        and still fill our lives with “doing the Lord’s work”
            and “serving others,”
        we wind up exhausted,
            failing to have actually “paid attention”
            to the voice of God trying to speak above the clamor.

    So we become a church full of Christians suffering from
        “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Deception.”
        The false notion that we earn God’s approval
            through high-performance, and near moral perfection.
        This leads to a life deficient in paying attention to God,
            and hyper-active.

    Sabbath rest pulls us out of the false narrative
        that lies behind this spiritual ADHD,
        or chronic distraction.

But it’s not just individuals that suffer from this malaise.
    This virus infects whole systems, like the church itself.

    The church is likely to be seduced by the lure of success,
        measured in numbers, of course,
        and measured in how much recognition and respect
            we get “out there.”

    That’s a temptation for the church
        every time it gathers in a national assembly.
    We want to come away feeling good about ourselves, of course.
        We want to feel like we’re legit,
            that we’re noticed,
            that we’re admired and appreciated.

Nothing makes Mennonites prouder,
    than being in a big city like Pittsburgh or Phoenix or Kansas City,
    and making the front page of the city paper,
        with the reporter gushing
            about all the good works we are doing around the city,
                raking leaves, picking up garbage, serving meals, etc.,
            and about the heavenly acappella singing.
    Obviously, there is nothing wrong with doing deeds.
        We should be doing them anyway, all the time, without notice.
    But it’s always a temptation for the church—
        local, regional, or national—
        to strive for acceptance by doing more, doing bigger,
            doing better than the church down the street.

My main prayer for our church as we head to Kansas City,
    is the capacity to listen to the voice of God.
    To pay attention.
    To notice, and to heed, what God is saying and doing in each other.
    And to do the hard work of discerning together
        what we are hearing the Holy Spirit say.
    My deepest longing
        is not to be a church that others can admire.
        It’s to be a church that pays attention;
            a church that follows its master;
            a church that won’t let itself be pulled off the path
                by whatever squirrel is distracting us;
            a church that is wise enough to know the difference
                between a squirrel,
                and a move of God we weren’t expecting.
    It’s a church that takes care, prayerful attentiveness, and time,
        to rest in God’s promise to provide,
        and trust the God of Sabbath abundance.
    I trust you will all pray with me about that,
        as a number of us depart for Kansas City in the next two days.

Let’s sing together, HWB 557—
    O God, in restless living we lose our spirit’s peace.
    Calm our unwise confusion, bid thou our clamor cease.
    Let anxious hearts grow quiet, like pools at evening still,
    till thy reflected heavens all our spirits fill.

—Phil Kniss, June 28, 2015

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