focus

A sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Luke

Focus.

I grew up honing my ability to focus under pressure, to focus on the test in front of me, to focus on the next pass to make, to focus on the next move to hit, to drown out the sounds of the crowd so only the calls of my coach would pierce through the din. 

As a high school varsity wrestler, I would walk out onto a mat in a dark high school gymnasium with a couple hundred (and rarely, but sometimes, a thousand) very passionate fans cheering and buzzing, as I walked to the center of the mat under a spotlight to face my opponent. There was no taking in the moment, all focus was present on what action would happen the moment the ref blew his whistle.

That experience hasn’t changed much as I’ve become the referee, standing in between two young men about to put it all on the line, knowing that I too must be focused in on a fast-moving and quickly changing (and sometimes potentially dangerous) sport, even as parents and coaches and other wrestlers yell at me for points, for their teammate, for their child.

So, I know, or at least have gotten pretty decent at being able to develop a tunnel-vision of sorts to focus so specifically and solely on the moment that is happening in front of me, especially when the pressure is on, when the stakes are high, when my performance is on display for all to see.

And today, Jesus is approached by the Sadduccees who are lost in their own tunnel-vision of focus.

Jesus, seeing this, does not answer the question they pose.

Jesus, seeing their focus so narrowly intent on trapping Jesus, of catching him out, of tripping him up, simply doesn’t answer their question, and yet, in not answering, leaves an answer for us to reflect on today in our own practice of faith.

Where is our focus in our faith?

Is it possible that we tend too often to get caught up in the how of faith, in the how of practicing our faith, in the rules of order of our faith?

Not only is it possible, sometimes that’s how we’re ever able to get anything done!

Seriously though, we can get caught up in these components of our faith and begin to forget what we are really fighting for, what we really stand for, what we truly want to experience in our faith.

The past two days I was at the Diocese of Olympia Convention. These two days are how the church as a unified body accomplishes the important work of being a church in the man-made structures and world we exist within. It is an important time, and yet, I have always wondered if there shouldn’t be something more to it, or if it really as important as it is held up to be. 

And, I love church politics and governance.

So, if someone who enjoys this part of our life in faith, of being part of a larger church that is bigger than one person or one congregation, which in turn necessitates a convention in the first place, still leaves wondering if there was a different way, a different focus, that should be at the heart of what is being done, then maybe our expression of faith has forgotten to expand the focus.

The question that we struggle with, that I struggle with, is: how do we live into this dichotomy in our faith?

On one hand we have an understanding of how faith should work based on lived experience, on rules, on societal norms, on a set order of things, and on the other we have a way of understanding that is predicated on a new understanding that is being offered by Christ.

These two appear to be at odds with one another, so how can we continue to coexist in harmony and live fully into our faith.

I think it partly has to begin with a letting go.

I think this is what Jesus is trying to teach the Sadducees today. You have to let go of what you understand of how the world works, because with God in resurrection, none of that matters, none of it carries with us, none of it will weigh us down.

In letting go, that is not to say that we forgo those pieces that are important, that we just not do them, but that we change the focus of that work so that it always points to the reality of the resurrection and the life we are promised after this one.

The strength we have to let go then must come in our faith, and through our faith, we find that strength constantly and consistently in the holy words we read, mark, and inwardly digest every Sunday, every day of our faith.

If you look on the front of your bulletin you will find a cover image. For those who are newer or newly returned, this is a practice that started last Lent, and has featured artistic renditions of Biblical stories, icons of stories/people/events, and photos with quotes pulled directly from that Sunday’s lessons. I utilize this space to reiterate what we hear. I utilize this space to hold us in the moment of the story and to prepare us as we begin the service.

Today, I utilized this space to emphasize this point of my sermon, our faith teaches us what we need to know, and if we widen our focus just enough then we can know fully these words:

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

It is in our faith that our hearts are comforted, and truly it is only in our faith that our hearts can be comforted. With the Good News of the resurrection, with the warmth of hospitality as you set foot into a worship space for the first time or first time in a while, with the caring embrace of a dear friend that has sat next to you or just in front of you in the pews for one month or forty years, our hearts are comforted by the presence of God that is felt every day and in every way in this place.

Furthermore, we are strengthened in our faith because of this place, because of the people around us, because of the expression of our collective faith in worship with one another, completely and utterly broken sinners and sinners working on healing alike.

Our focus then has to be narrow, but in its narrowness, wide. 

For our focus is to be solely on Christ.

But in focusing on Christ, we are shown that we are to care for our neighbor, to care for one another in our faith, to seek and learn and encourage and inspire fellow believers, to be so wide in our focus that none are lost or left out.

Christianity then is not stepping on the wrestling mat under a spotlight knowing the whole world at the moment is watching you as you try to succeed (and as was mostly true in my experience, very often failing). For that moment of solely intense focus, that moment of Sadducee-like focus, prevents us from seeing the larger picture of faith that wants to engage and connect and grow with us. If we turn on the lights and turn our focus to every person in the stands rather than the opponent across the mat from us, we begin to live into the focus that Christ has called us into.

This is not to say that we forget the one in favor of the many, Christ is pretty clear on that front too in terms of our call to Shepherd, but we Shepherd the one back to the flock because it is our job as the Shepherd of the whole flock, we are not the shepherd solely of that one, it’s just in that moment that one needs us more than the 99.

This is how we can utilize our ability, our trained ability to focus so intently, to our advantage in our faith. To understand that we can use those skills to benefit the whole. To understand that Christ calls us to look to the resurrection and the life that is to come, to not get so caught up in what we understand today, but rather to turn our focus onto what is promised in our faith, and with a different kind of singular focus, share that promise far and wide.

Amen.

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