In “Saintly Connections” I wrote of how playing Scrabble with my brother was often derailed by arguments over whether or not a word one of us placed was in fact a real word. We were distracted – taken off course – in our gaming by these time-and-energy consuming debates. We spent more effort, it seemed, in proving ourselves ‘right’ instead of focusing on the essence of the game – using most of our letters to maximize the points in a single move.
Our readings today put these ‘distractions’ in proper perspective. Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ questions about the resurrection – which they did not believe in – suggests we are lost when not grounded in the present moment. “Now, he is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38). Indeed, the Gospel focuses on what directly concerns us, now. Everything is focused on today, as the acceptable time – in the present moment.
In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian church, the people are encouraged “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 Thess 2:2) by claims of the end times. Paul is doing here what authorities in October of 1938 had to do; police logs across the United States chronicle the chaos of people who had heard the Orson Welles radio program “War of the Worlds” – and thought it was a true news story! A tremendous amount of energy and damage control had to go into calming people down.
Indeed, we are a people easily distracted. Consider this fact alone: Let’s presume the amount of information available to the ordinary person at the time of Jesus as one unit; it took until the year 1500 (around the Reformation) for that to double. After the invention of the printing press at that time, the amount of information available to the ordinary person doubled every hundred years, then every fifty. Then, in the 1900s every ten years. At the turn of the second millennium the amount of information available to the ordinary person has doubled every seven months (p.39, Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs). Our problem is not that we need more information. We may feel overburdened with so much information that we are understandably confused and conflicted! Any wonder we are anxious and distracted?
Is it any wonder that we struggle to find meaning in our short existence? There was a movie some decades ago called “Amadeus”. It chronicled, in a creative and entertaining way, the life of music great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was by any standard, a genius, who started at age four playing several instruments and created at least 528 musical compositions over the course of his life. His music is still enjoyed the world over centuries after his death.
The film ends showing Mozart’s undignified funeral: The scene is dark and dreary, and his composition, The Requiem Mass in D Minor, provides the sweeping, emotionally dense yet majestic background music. He is carted to his grave in a blizzard. Only the grave digger and wagon driver attend, mindlessly going about their jobs. There is a trap door at one end of his plain, wooden casket, and they dump his body through that trap door into a giant hole in which there are several other bodies. And then they quickly depart. He was only thirty-five years of age – a prodigy.
What a waste, we might think, that he should have died so young. Imagine if he had the years most of us enjoy – what he might have accomplished! And it makes us wonder, does it not – is this life all there is? In our information-over-loaded age we can see real-time images of starving children, millions displaced by civil war, political corruption even in our own country. What a waste of precious resources, energy, stress and life! Or, remember as we do these days the many military service men and women who have died in the wars of the last century – people so young and healthy. And we think of those who still die today in senseless killings, wars and accidents.
Is this life all there is? What a waste! What is the purpose of it all?
As the father of theologian Adolf Schlatter lay dying, pious friends stood around his bed trying to comfort him with reassuring and edifying thoughts such as: “Soon you will be in the golden halls of Zion gazing across the crystal sea. Soon the radiance will surround you.” And so they talked and talked and talked, mainly comforting themselves, it seemed. Finally, the dying man raised himself up and snapped: “Shut up! Don’t bother me with all that talk! Just show me a picture of the Father embracing his prodigal Son. I only want to embrace my God.”
Even on the darkest day of our lives, may our focus be God’s loving embrace reaching out to us. Everything we do and are in this world stems from what God has done and is doing for us.
The story is told that one day back in early Puritan New England a couple of centuries ago there was a major eclipse. The sun was blotted out, the day turned dark, and people were terrified. “The world is going to end. What shall we do?” One insightful man replied, “Let us be found doing our duty” (p.282, Neta Pringle, Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 4).
Questions about the after-life and end times may understandably consume our imagination and get us thinking about so many things. People have written and talked and speculated about how things are going to be and to watch for the signs of the times. We have so much information about all this. But underlying and motivating all of this chatter, is there not a lot of fear and anxiety?
The Gospel resists this kind of distraction. The bible is hardly ever really clear on all the details anyway. We are called, instead, to focus on God’s abiding presence, God’s promise and grace, and God’s mission. “Give thanks,” Paul instructs the fearful Thessalonians (2 Thess 2: 13-17). See the big picture.
If our remembering this Remembrance Day causes us to be afraid, disturbed and anxious about the ways of the world, remember above all whose we are! “God chose you for salvation!” Paul exhorts the church. “Stand firm in faith” and remember that God “loved us and through grace gives us eternal comfort and good hope.” So, “comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”
Our job, it seems, is simply to keep on keeping on. No matter what.
And leave the rest in God’s hands. That is all.