Marsh Chapel, Boston University
It is almost always a sign that you are listening to a young preacher when said homiletician resorts to employing the sermon title for the purpose of encouraging you, dear listener, to in fact listen. While I am in fact a young preacher, it is my hope that over the coming span you will discover that there is more significance to our theme, “Pay Attention,” than such a simple enjoinder. Let us pray:
Gracious God, grant us, in all the changes and chances of this mortal life, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care upon you, who cares for us. When disasters lie ahead, help us to avoid them if we may, and to endure them if we must, knowing that we walk with the one who endured all for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
To what, then, shall we attend? I would suggest that our attention is drawn to those things in life that are out of place. We attend to unbalances in life, in an effort to reestablish equilibrium with our world. We flip the switch and, usually, the light goes on. But sometimes it does not and our attention is suddenly drawn to the fact that something is wrong. What might it be? Well, it is probably that the bulb has burned out so we go to the kitchen cupboard and dig out a new one. Hmm, still no light? Looking around, the microwave clock is off and the refrigerator is not running. Had we directed our attention more broadly, we would have noticed that the power is out. Knowing ourselves at least well enough to know that there is nothing we can do about power lines knocked out in a thunderstorm, our attention falls to plan B and we move about looking for flashlights and candles. Oh, but be careful with the candles! They bring their own risks and potential hazards, as our attention reminds us.
After getting dressed and brushing our teeth, we carefully put out the candles and attend to our umbrella, since the power outage suggests that it is probably raining. We meander down the street and wait patiently at the T stop as gusts of wind blow the rain horizontally into us. So much for the umbrella. We get off at BU Central, scurry across Commonwealth Avenue and trundle up the steps into the narthex of Marsh Chapel. Passing through that narrow gate our attention is recast from the power outage and cold rain to the warmth of hospitality as we are greeted, offered a bulletin and find a seat next to friends. All the while the organ gently tosses out tones that fill the air with a shimmer of grace. The service begins as our attention is drawn to the pulpit in a spirit of confidence, grace and freedom. The choir sings the introit, we sing a hymn together, and as we join in a unison opening prayer the symbols that constitute our life in the world, that give us meaning, our sacred canopy falls into place.
In the reading of scripture we are given a God’s eye view on the world and our place in it. We hear not only how God attends to the world, but also how God would have us attend to our world. We hear in the Gospel, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows.” It is not the case that God does not value the sparrows. God accompanies the sparrows even as they are sacrificed. And yet we hear that we are of greater value than the sparrows. Ours is a world made up of values. Greater values and lesser values. Values concentrated here and dispersed over there. Precious when taken together, insignificant in any solitary part. God looks out over a world of value and God loves the world according to its value.
We too look out over a world of value. To a large extent, the economists are right in their assumption that our consideration of the values in the world is of their value for ourselves. In antique cultures, family held a supreme value. Family equipped children for life and provided its members a way in the world: marriage, work, social status. This is still so today for many in the world. A high valuation of one’s family is a valuation based in self-interest. How surprising it still is for us to hear Jesus rend apart the family basis of society by setting children against parents. Jesus speaks as a prophet, recasting the world from God’s perspective, everything according to its value not for us but in itself. Jesus calls us to live our lives in the world in ultimate perspective, in God’s perspective. It is God who is of ultimate value and from whom we in the world receive our value. Our attention properly directed holds the world in light of divine life. We become sinful precisely when we hold the world in our own light. It is those rare moments of insight when we glimpse the world of value in divine perspective that we call transcendence.
Of course, there is a cost to our attention. We acknowledge this in our colloquialism, “Pay Attention.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, commenting on earlier chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, grace is costly. Focusing our attention here precludes attention paid over there. Even those who can multitask cannot pay attention to everything. Anyone who has ever watched an action movie knows that just as soon as the hero defeats the bad guy, another bad guy creeps up from behind and knocks the hero out with a two-by-four, at least until the last scene. When chopping vegetables, we fail to notice that the pot on the stove is boiling over. When worried about whether or not we locked the front door, we fail to listen to what the preacher is saying. When the economy takes a downturn, our attention is drawn away from the plight of violence, poverty and disease in much of our world.
To be human is to live under obligation to pay attention to everything in the world according to its value. In a world where family life is the fundamental building block of society, this obligation can be doled out in various responsibilities to each member. As that building block crumbles, we find ourselves each obligated to everything. Suddenly life appears much as Thomas Hobbes describes the state of nature: solitary, nasty, brutish and short. The social contract is meant to redistribute our responsibilities among all of the people in society. But here Hobbes makes a mistake. He believes that when members of society fail to meet their responsibilities, no one is responsible. In a world created by God, the case is precisely the opposite. Everyone is responsible! When society breaks down, we must each hold its brokenness in divine light. It is as Howard Thurman said, “people, all people, belong to each other.”
This multiplicity in responsibility is especially prevalent in democratic societies such as ours. In a democracy, attention is accountability. From time to time, the public calls its leaders to account, and then either affirms or replaces them. Political scientists distinguish between attentive and inattentive publics. Attentive publics pay attention to what their leaders are doing. Inattentive publics do not. If we were all attentive publics with regards to our leaders, we would be inattentive to the responsibilities that have been entrusted to us. Most of us are inattentive most of the time. This is like breathing. Most of the time we are not attentive to our breathing. But when we are pushed under water by a wave while swimming in the ocean, breathing becomes a problem and we become attentive. In social life, we often need to be called to attention; we need to be told when our leaders fail in their responsibilities because they are not always so obvious. We must undergo μετανοια, conversion of heart and mind – a redirection of attention from our own responsibilities to those of our leaders in order to hold them accountable. And we must accept, even welcome, the attention of others as it holds us accountable.
The measure of responsibility is the values in the world in God’s perspective; the values as they are in themselves, not as they are for us. It is God’s people who stand as prophetic signs in the world, pointing to the world of values in themselves experienced in transcendence. We draw upon those momentary glimpses of the world in divine light and share them with a grieved and broken world. God created the world and called it good, and from God’s perspsective, it is good. The world is not good for us, it is good in God. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light.” In the darkness of transcendence we see the world bathed in divine light. It is for us to speak the light, to live the light in a world of darkness.
And what of the cost? Jeremiah speaks to us of the cost. He is given the transcendent vision of God and sees that in its darkness the world is given to violence and destruction. He speaks the prophetic word, “wake up!” He calls the inattentive public to attend to the world as God attends to the world. But the world does not understand. The world denounces him and persecutes him. The psalmist too knows the cost of the call to attention. Herein is prefigured the breaking of the family we see in Matthew. “I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.” The psalmist has been humbled in fasting, no longer self-interested but deeply interested, zealous even, in the world as God’s house. The psalmist too is called to pay the cost in insults and persecution.
This story sounds awfully familiar, but in the Gospels there is a different outcome. The prophet and the psalmist are called upon to pay the price of attention to the world of values in themselves, transcendent glimpses of the world bathed in divine light. Jesus is not only prophet and psalmist. Jesus is more. Jesus is our “great high priest, who has passed through the heavens. We come boldly to the throne of grace.” Jesus calls the world to attention and the world exacts its price. It is not God who demands payment, but we ourselves. And Jesus pays the cost.
The good news of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ for you today is that the cost is paid. The Holy Spirit, the advocate and comforter, is blowing about in the world, dispelling fear, invigorating courage, and nurturing freedom. “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Two millennia after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is great hope for a world of freely shared responsibility, basking in the transcendent light of God. It is a rare thing in these days of democracy that our prophets are called upon to pay a price for waking us. On the rare occasions when they are – Martin Luther King, Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy – they become martyrs for the cause of grace and freedom. This is not so everywhere in our world, thinking of the tragedy of Zimbabwe, and so we continue to preach a gospel of grace and freedom, a responsible Christian liberalism. We will not always get it right. Our attention will be misdirected at times. Our response is contrition and compunction; we lament and repent.
In these days and in these times, even in the midst of flourishing democracy, there is much to attend. We must attend especially to those for whom we have failed in our responsibility, in a spirit of contrition and repentance. Today, following this service, in Barristers’ Hall at the School of Law next door, we will share a meal and fellowship and hear from Iraqi refugees. Our inattention is irresponsible. They are here to call us to attention. Wake up! Pay attention! All people are of equal value and worth in the transcendent vision of the world in divine light. Boston University is the historical home of Boston Personalism. Martin Luther King, Jr. came here to study personalism. It is a philosophy that takes as its starting point the infinite value, worth and dignity of every person. It is in this spirit that Dr. Thurman said "For this is why we were born: people, all people, belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself." Our salvation is in welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the refugee.
As the preacher turns to sit and the organist plays quiet strains, our attention is drawn to the window with the small friar in soft, brown robes surrounded by animals, birds especially, who were his particularly to attend. The echoes of his voice call down through the ages, “preach the gospel to all the world, and if necessary, use words.” The attentive life is lived, not spoken. The organist arrives at a cadence and in the echoes reverberate the saint’s gentle resonance, “you may be the only vision of Jesus Christ someone will ever see.” The watchful gaze of St. Francis and all the saints in stained glass mediates the divine radiance, and as the call to prayer begins, we catch the briefest glimpse of the world of values in themselves. We offer the values back to God in prayer, and we offer ourselves in the offering, not because we can pay the cost of grace and freedom, but in gratitude to God who pays attention to us. In the benediction and response we hear our responsibility to pay attention and to call others to attend our broken world. Walking out into the fresh air, the world appears bright and new, filled with grace and freedom. A gentle breeze brushes through our hair and we hear strains of transformation and reconciliation in the voice of Walt Whitman:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again and ever again, this soiled world.