Dealing with Distractions – Sermon for May 14, 2017

Dealing with Distractions
Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60
5th Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Everyone gets distracted. The older you get, the more responsibilities you have, the more likely it is that something will slip through the cracks. Sometimes it’s something small, like scrambling to get out the door on time in the morning and leaving your coffee mug sitting on the table. Other times it’s something more significant, like missing an appointment or deadline because something else comes up unexpectedly.  No one knows this better than moms, who are consistently responsible not only for their own schedule but also for the schedules of their kids and, often, their husband. That’s why it’s good on a day like today to take time out to say thank you to moms for all that they do. But Mother’s Day sentimentality aside, most moms could probably tell you a story about the time they forgot something important for work or home or their child’s school. Most dads could too.

That’s because distraction is a common problem. Many would argue that, as a culture, we have become addicted to distraction. It is now a documented fact that the sound your phone makes when you get a text message or other alert releases dopamine into your brain. Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that drives you to seek rewards and gives you a sense of pleasure when that reward is met. It sharpens your focus and increases goal directed behavior so long as that behavior results in the desired reward. Some researchers suggest that the cultural addiction to smartphones is a result of the dopamine they produce in your brain. For example, dopamine in your brain makes you start looking for something, and when you find that thing, you get a feeling of reward or accomplishment. With smartphones, the dopamine in your brain encourages you to look for the notification: a new text, new email, new mention. With phones, you can have that reward experience almost immediately, which releases more dopamine into your brain so that you seek the reward more and more. Smartphones are especially suited to feed this cycle because dopamine is heightened by anticipation and unpredictability. Subconsciously wondering when your phone will bing next releases dopamine into your brain. Then, when your phone finally bings, the result that your brain was seeking is fulfilled. The behavior is rewarded, and your brain starts the whole cycle over by anticipating the next bing.[1]

When your phone doesn’t bing, you pick it up to see if you missed something. You check it every few minutes just to make sure. And if you didn’t miss something, if there’s no notifications there to reward you, then you post on social media or text someone in an effort to induce a response from your phone. Or you play one more level on that game so that you can hear the sound it makes when you win. Or you look for that one perfect pin on Pinterest that you can save for later. And pretty soon, the dishes aren’t done, the laundry’s not folded, the lawn needs to be mowed, you haven’t made eye contact with your spouse all day, you haven’t spent much time with your kids, you didn’t finish that report for your meeting at work in the morning, and all you can think about is how to get your phone to make that “new message” sound you love so much. We are easily distracted people. And more often than not, we’re so caught up in the distraction and how it makes us feel that we don’t even realize what’s not getting done, what important tasks are slipping through the cracks.

It’s just as easy for us to get distracted in the church. It’s easy for us to get distracted as the children of God. It’s easy for us to let what’s most important slip through the cracks as we chase after other things – some of which are important, some of which are not. It’s a temptation that faces the church as a whole, and a temptation that faces each of us as a child of God.

Today’s reading from the book of Acts tells of a two-fold distraction, temptations that would keep us distracted from the main purpose of the church and the primary work of the children of God. One of the major distractions is the threat of persecution. The Apostle Stephen was violently opposed for preaching the good news of Jesus. When he would not fall silent in the face of his persecutors, he was killed. We often find ourselves living in fear of persecution and we wonder what we would do if such a threat appeared in our lives. We don’t need to limit persecution only to death threats, although there are certainly people around the world for whom that remains a distinct possibility. For us, we live in fear of becoming a social outcast, or of losing friends, maybe even losing family members. We live in fear of how people might negatively respond if we proclaim the Word of God with our lips and with our lives.

The threat of persecution or hardship is a powerful temptation to set aside our identity as God’s children and instead to attempt to blend in with the world around us. And because there’s no shortage of reasons to fear, we can quickly become addicted to the distraction. Like waiting for the phone to buzz, we end up waiting for, even looking for the next threat. We become distracted from the comfort of God’s Word.

When faced with such temptations, we remember Jesus’s words from today’s Gospel reading: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Often Jesus spoke of His suffering and death, but we tend to forget. Now He says: “I am the Way.” He is the Way to live and to die. Jesus said “Narrow is the Way that leads to Life and few are those who find it.” It is narrow because it is the way of God, following God’s Word, not distracted by the threats of sinful men. How does one quiet a fearful heart in the face of persecution or rejection from the world? By believing in the promise of Jesus. How does one quiet fears about the future? By listening to Jesus who says: “In My Father’s house are many mansions. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to Myself so that where I am also you may be.” And then He adds: “And where I am going you know the Way.” Jesus went the way of sorrows and suffering, the way of the cross, the way of death and resurrection so that we can go the way of peace and everlasting life. Jesus is the Way.[2]

Beyond the fear of persecution, we are also tempted to become distracted from who we are as the children of God by other good and godly activities. It is important for parents to make sure their kids have clean clothes, but that’s not their most important task. Would we applaud parents who were so wrapped up in doing laundry that they neglected to feed their children or take them to the doctor when they had a fever? So also we are likely to get distracted by activities that are in and of themselves good and godly, but that are not our main focus as the children of God.

In today’s reading from Acts, that activity was tending to the needs of widows. The twelve summoned the full number of disciples and said: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.”[3] There are cautions and reminders in there for all the children of God. Most importantly, there is a reminder of the importance of hearing God’s Word. I’ve often heard it said that the church should focus on deeds, not creeds, that the church should focus on helping the sick and starving, the widows and the orphans, and not on gathering for worship or Bible study. And because such experiences are often more fulfilling than an hour of sitting in church or Bible Study, we become addicted to the distraction. Like waiting for the phone to buzz, we are waiting for the next service trip or charity event, ignoring the simple task of listening to God’s Word while we wait.

But such ideas distract us from our main focus as the children of God. It’s not that such activities or acts of charity and mercy are unimportant. They certainly are. But we must keep the hearing of God’s Word our top priority. We are first and foremost people who hear and confess the truth of God’s Word. We hear and confess the truth of our sin. We hear and confess the truth of our salvation. We listen to him who is the way, the truth and the life, for there is no way other than him. There is no life apart from him. His Word of truth assures us that he is our Good Shepherd, the one who laid down his life that we might overcome death. Living in that promise is what makes us children of God. The acts of kindness and mercy, while important, come after the hearing of God’s Word. It’s like a lamp in your living room. If you want the lamp to light up, you have to plug it in. Once you unplug it, the bulb goes dark. You don’t just plug it in for 30 minutes then unplug it expecting the lamp to go on working all evening. The lamp has to remain plugged in to shine. So also the children of God. We need to be plugged into God’s Word to be the light of the world. We don’t just plug in once or twice a year and expect the light to shine. We stay connected to the source – to the Word of God – and then through us the light of God shines into the darkness.

The world is full of things that would distract us from this reality. Whether it’s the bing of a smartphone or the dozens of other activities and events that would keep us from regular worship and Bible Study, repent of these distractions. Turn your focus back to hearing and learning the Word of God, making regular worship a priority, not fearing soft or hard persecution from the dying world, not prioritizing pious actions over the Sabbath rest of hearing God’s Word, but instead remaining plugged into that Word in order that the Holy Spirit might create saving faith within you.  For with that faith comes the promise of eternal rest, the joy of knowing you are loved by your Father in heaven, and the comfort of knowing that no matter what happens in this life and in this world, Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you. And he will come again to take you unto himself. May the Word of God comfort you with this promise all the days of this life and into the life to come.

[1] Susan Weinschenk Ph.D. “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google” Psychology Today Online (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/why-were-all-addicted-texts-twitter-and-google)

[2] The Sermon Notes of Harold Buls. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/bul/east-03a.html

[3] Acts 6:2

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