Sermon: “Pay Attention!”

“Pay Attention!”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
December 3, 2017


Mark 13:24-27, 32-37
‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

My daughter Davie, like many kids her age, is imaginative and lively and, like every child on earth, an absolute miracle to behold. But when we’re playing trains for the umpteenth time, or engaging in a toy dinosaur battle yet again, it’s pretty easy to let my mind wander away from the miracle in front of me. I start thinking about my to-do list or what we’re going to have for dinner. And heaven help me if my phone’s nearby because I will most definitely sneak a peek at my Instagram account or the latest text message – only coming back to the moment after she’s called my name three or four times. (If she’s really desperate she’ll use my actual name – “Leah. Leah. Leeeeeeaaaaaaaah.”) In other words, despite how amazing she is, I can be pretty bad at paying attention to her.

Jesus’ message to his disciples to “keep awake” is a wake up call for me, too. The biblical equivalent of “pay attention!”, it was a common refrain in the gospels. “Keep awake!” Jesus told the bridesmaids from a few weeks ago who dozed off while waiting for the groom to appear. Then of course, there is Paul writing to the church in Thessalonica saying, “So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake… (1 Thessalonians 5:6)

Paul and the gospel writers aren’t telling their audiences to never actually go to sleep, of course – they’re metaphorically encouraging them to remain vigilant, stay alert and aware of what’s going on around them. They’re implying that something is going on, something that may not grab our attention at first but that will change our lives if we have the eyes to perceive what is transpiring right in front of us.

“Pay attention!” they seem to be saying. “You don’t want to miss this.”

For the early church, the important event worth paying attention to is Jesus’ coming. In line with the contemporary Jewish understanding of the Messiah, the early church expected the Savior to create a new world order where the righteous would be lifted up and the wicked crushed. Since Jesus’ first coming to earth was a bit disappointing in this regard, they believed Jesus would just have to have a second coming to usher in God’s physical and political kingdom in all its splendor. But in the three decades between Jesus’ death and Mark writing the first gospel, it had become increasingly hard for the early church to keep their eyes on the prize. Hence Paul, Mark, and the other gospel writers exhort them to keep awake – to be on the lookout for the inbreaking kindom even as they grow weary of the wait.

We may not be watching for the apocalypse, but we still believe in this inbreaking of the kindom – in fact, it’s at the heart of Advent, which means “coming” or “arrival.” We’re not expecting Jesus to literally be born somewhere in a stable in the Middle East; but rather we take this time to prepare for Jesus’ spiritual arrival into our hearts and our world. So what does it mean to keep awake, to pay attention when we understand God’s coming into the world less as a physical, temporal event and more as something spiritual?

UCC pastor and author Richard Peace writes in his book Noticing God that we are called to be “spiritual pilgrims…alert to what God is doing in ordinary life.” Angel choruses and astronomical anomalies certainly make God’s inbreaking obvious, but such mystical, supernatural experiences are the exception, much rarer than the mundane ways we encounter God in our daily lives and less likely to change our lives over the long run.

Peace advocates spiritual practices like the Ignatian Examen and lectio divina to help us pay attention to God’s presence in our lives. But it can be even simpler than that. As social scientist and mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer says, sometimes it’s just a “very simple process of actively noticing” the world around us.

I have made it a habit to put my phone away every time I walk back and forth between the parsonage and the church. It’s the world’s shortest commute, but I often traverse it multiple times a day, and each time I spend those five minutes breathing in the fresh air, noticing the color of the sky and the texture of the clouds, enjoying the sensation of my body walking uphill or down. I let go of my to-do list and stop thinking about work or what has to be done at home and instead I just am. I am not great at meditation and don’t often sit still to pray for prolonged periods; instead it’s often in these moments of paying attention to the world around me that I find myself most able to sense God’s loving presence and most able to feel gratitude and joy.

Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton wrote that “God manifests…everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events…You cannot be without God…it’s just simply impossible.” If this is true – which I believe it is since I can imagine no place or situation in which the Holy Spirit can’t communicate with us – then it’s always, and only, a matter of paying attention, of noticing, of keeping awake to where God is already multifariously active in our lives and our world.

This is easier said than done, of course. There’s an entire industry built around what’s called the “attention economy,” vying for what is essentially a precious, limited resource and not the infinitely renewable commodity we imagine it to be. And where we focus this limited attention largely determines how we will spend our time, energy, and money. Internet juggernauts like Google and Apple know this; it’s why they’ve become dangerously good at creating technology that sucks away our attention.

It’s up to us to value this finite resource enough to train it on what matters most to us. French activist and mystic Simone Weil wrote an entire essay on the power of attention to shape our spiritual lives, declaring that our capacity for attention is nothing less than our capacity for prayer, since prayer “is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.”  She advocates treating every other attention-building activity – study, work, playing dinosaurs with your daughter – as a way to flex your prayer muscles.

If prayer is simply focusing ourselves on God, and we live in a world that is forever trying to wrestle away our attention towards the latest soundbite or text message or advertisement, we are, in fact, in danger of missing out on God coming into our world – of falling asleep, as it were. Where we focus our attention – and how long we can keep it there! – determines whether we will glimpse God’s presence in a stranger, see God’s miracles in nature or our loved ones, or hear God’s voice whispering to us.

In her poem “The Gate,” Marie Howe tells how her brother, who died of AIDS at a young age, gave her this gift of paying attention:

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world

would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man

but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,

rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?

And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?

And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

When you see God present in ordinary ways and in every facet of your life, suddenly it becomes a little harder to despair. When you practice paying attention to God’s presence, then even when the world is dark you are able to see God in it, maybe even in the darkest places.

This is part of what it means to be, as Paul says, children of light, children of the day. This is what it means to have hope.

How much more is this apparent during Advent, when in the darkest winter we prepare for Jesus’ coming into our lives and our world once again?

Ellen Langer, the social scientist I mentioned earlier, says “mindlessness is pervasive.” We go through life “miss[ing] what’s often right in front of [us],” she notes, and “virtually all of the ills are a result of mindlessness” – of not living our lives as though we are actually present to them. In over thirty years of research she’s found that simply noticing what’s in front of us – not meditation, or yoga, or any other seemingly spiritual endeavor – but simply paying attention leads to well-being, health, and happiness – even in the face of darkness, even in a fractured world.

Jesuit Anthony de Mello describes it this way: “You know, all mystics—Christian, non-Christian, no matter what their religion—are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But basically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.”

And so we keep awake for Jesus’ continual coming into our lives, noticing, paying attention to where God is present in our lives and how we might celebrate and share that presence with others. We appreciate the cheese and mustard sandwich; we take in the cloud-streaked sky; we smile at the stranger. In noticing God’s presence everywhere, even – especially – in the dark, we have hope.