Alan Neale

Writer • Speaker

Sermon “Fatal Distractions” – Sunday November 27 2016, Advent Sunday. Trinity Church, Newport RI. The Reverend Alan Neale

Advent is such a glorious season of the Church’s Year; it shouts “counter-cultural” to a mad, mad, mad, mad world engorged by crass commercialism and a rapid race toward the numbing of spirituality and the unreadiness to accept the Christ-child… born in a stable.
I plan to sport the purple rubber band throughout Advent and whenever I am feeling challenged or irritated by the season’s antics… I’ll snap the band and pray, “Lord, come by here.”

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI on Sunday November 27 2016.
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Fatal Distraction”

After the long trudge through the green yet arid wastes of Trinity (now nicely but ineffectually called Pentecost) we come to this triumphant, startling Advent Season… bathed in purple, impatient with distraction, demanding our attention… but this is a counter-cultural battle to be enjoined with spiritual ferocity as we are assailed by Christmas songs, gifts, decorations and even, yes, aromas.

To adapt, with apology, words of the erstwhile Newport resident Clement Clarke Moore

Twas the season ere Christmas, they called it Advent
Despite cries and laments, Rector would not relent –
No carols, no holly, no jingles, no wreaths
All in the hope that we’d observe Advent… pleaths!

Just two days ago I posted on Facebook a London Telegraph article describing the wit and wisdom of Her Majesty the Queen wearing “Cadbury purple” so as to deal with distraction; even we, independent and republican souls, can learn from a monarch!

Today the prophet Isaiah shares with us a great Advent hope when “they will learn war no more”, a hope that seems increasingly distant and yet available to us even NOW (the great Advent word) as we constrain ourselves, by the grace of God, to “learn about, train for, play at war no more” in our relationships in family, at work, in church and in nation. Consider the myriad of opportunities we have even today to make real this future Advent hope.

But there are “fatal distractions” at work that grab our attention, diffuse our focus, dilute our will and mislead our steps.

Listen to these words of Mike Slaughter: “Thanksgiving in our American culture heralds the start of the Advent Season. Paradoxically, the season celebrating the humble birth of Christ is ushered in with the blare, glitz and materialistic glamour of Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday sales. How easily we forget that Jesus was not the messiah most people were expecting, nor the sugar daddy for which many still hope. Jesus was not the savior that came shimmying down the chimney, but the One who came demonstrating a lifestyle that follows the way of the Cross. Our cultural (and I would add precipitate) celebration of Christmas is full of “fatal distractions.”

St. Paul, pithily for once, describes such “fatal distractions” as “reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy.” The Advent Hope speaks of liberating self-control, of freedom from excess, of the vanquishing of petty jealousies and chasing after false gods of consumerism and yet… we are distracted, and distracted mightily and fatally.

As a young chorister in a London Anglican church, I still remember the frisson of fear as the preacher, tall and stern, spoke of “two will be in the field; one taken and one left. Of two women grinding meal together; one taken and one left.” But now, thank God, I understand that Jesus meant not to nurture fear but rather to encourage readiness, alertness, awareness lest “fatal distractions” blind, deafen, emasculate our Hope to come breaking even into the NOW of our today.

Friends we are beset by so many “fatal distractions”, it is an intrinsic part of our humanity and I say this as one who needs an agenda in order to keep on task, disciplined and orderly. All too often my patient spouse will ask despairingly, “So what are we talking about now?”

Perhaps we need revert to the quaint though effective practice of wearing a wrist band, a rubber band, that we snap from time to time to jolt us into reality; to remind us of the important; to ensure our sanity in a mad, mad, mad, mad, world.

I quote “These wristbands and rubber bands are not doing anything magical. They are not claiming to be able to suck your anxiety out or change your spirit. They have nothing to do with “toxins.” What they are is the type of reminder that those with anxiety need in order to help overcome their symptoms.

Living with anxiety requires far too much thinking. These rubber bands, and the little bit of pain that snapping them back on your arm causes, help bring you back to reality so that your thoughts are not causing you to feel like things around you are crashing. They are a great tool to remind you of something you need to remember, and they are nondescript – meaning they’re one of the few anxiety treatments that few others will be able to notice, and they can be done almost anywhere.”

Now I see… the purple, the starkness, the counter-cultural “wrist-band” of Advent that “brings us back to reality” and “reminds us of something we need to remember” – that Christ is coming now, today, tomorrow as well as coming in some eschatological, apocalyptic final NOW.

For decades I have avoided as much as possible even thinking about the folksy melody and banal lyrics of “Kum Ba Yah” but today I see them as the Advent carillon call; that though embroiled in the fatal distractions of our lives and especially of this season we pray in earnest, “Lord, come by here.” This can be our Advent prayer in moments of being overwhelmed, sickened, dismayed and nearly lost… “Lord, come by here.”

While waiting for the birth of our fourth grandson, I sent a text to Wendy saying I needed some rubber bands for today’s sermon. She replied, “I know – you’re going to flick them at everybody instead of preaching a sermon!!!” Colin James arrived at 6:45pm; the Lord arrives constantly and at one future moment consummately – “Lord, come by here”.