Sermon for Trinity 21 Year C 2019
2 Thess 2:1-5,13-17
‘On (not) paying attention’
Psalm 90 – a prayer of Moses
Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
[therefore] teach us to number our days, that we might acquire a heart of wisdom . . .
There is perhaps no more important virtue, than that of paying attention. It is such a rare thing that when we discover someone who pays attention to us, it is a precious gift. The gift of being present to, attentive to, and listening to another – discerning their hearts movements from careful and patient attention – is almost, like wisdom itself, as precious as rubies. In this age most definitely we might cry out ‘Attention, where is it to be found?’
We think of those modern conditions, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder, and Attention Deficit Disorder – two sides of the same thing. We are so distracted by many things, that we cannot give our attention fully to others, and they in their turn will do anything to get attention.
It is sobering to think, as one writer puts it, that many of the best minds of this age are giving their time and energy to ways in which their employers might grab your attention . . . Perhaps we might say steal it, for Attention is in your gift. And it is a most precious gift, for where you spend that gift is where you spend your life. We spend our very few days in giving attention – and in these days everything it seems is clamouring for it . . . and so our life is frittered away.
I am sure that I am not unique in fighting against my phones habit of drawing my attention. I have to discipline myself, not always successfully, against turning to look for the news when I first rise in the morning. Is this how I am going to spend my days? Is reading the news the fruit of a wise heart? When I look back, can I say I wish I’d given more attention to the news?
Teach us to number our days . . . if we realised how fleeting are our days, if we attended to the very gift of Life with which we had been entrusted for a season . . . to what would we give our attention? Are we paying attention to our lives?
Or indeed the lives of those around us? Do we give this gift of Attention to others? One of the markers of the deep disorder of our lives that I hear all too frequently from folk ‘I like to hear about people’s lives at their funerals’ . . . Actually, as I am all too often trying gently to remind folk, we never truly hear anything about a person’s life on such occasions.
Life, this gift of Presence – of Being with others – Relationship is what makes a life. People paying attention to one another. A Life cannot be spoken in absence. As anyone who has ever loved another human being knows, you cannot attend to their being when they are dead. Much of grief, I believe is to do with this sense of ‘there was so much I missed!’ You know I spent so many days and hours and months and years in the presence of this person and paid so little attention, to them. Perhaps we were caught up working on something, or we talked about this or that or the other, but paying attention to this Life that was present, and now is gone.
Paying attention is the Root of Wisdom – it is the source of Life itself. Not least because our Life is the fruit of God’s attention to us
And paying attention is another of those thread which keeps recurring in Luke’s gospel . . . from the parable of the sower, where we read of those from whom the Word is snatched away, to those where the Word is choked by the pleasures and cares, those attention thieves of Life . . . it is only those who by careful attending to their lives tend the seed of the word of life – who bring forth a harvest . . . or again the man who sees his corps have done well and not paying attention to the shortness of his days builds bigger barns . . . and his life is demanded of him.
I mentioned the deep sadness of hearing of those who do not know people when they are alive . . . another aspect of the same thing is those who as it were put off the attention to the future, only to find their life demanded of them. I think in my own family of those who died before a retirement for which there were so many plans . . . trips, holidays, barns . . .
Of course just being Christian doesn’t keep you from such distractions, such dreaming. Religious life has its own traps, its thieves of attention . . . There are religious controversies, and the Lord knows how easily our attention is consumed by those.
So St Paul warns the Thessalonians church ‘As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.
They’re getting caught up in this stuff – running around like headless chickens.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? ‘Weren’t you paying attention to what you were taught?’ he berates them. Are we paying attention to what we are taught?
‘Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels’ 2 Timothy 2:23 The body of Christ, the Church – broken over stupid and senseless controversies . . . and no one seems to notice – no one is paying attention to Life, to the Life of Jesus, Jesus our Life
Jesus who teaches us to pray and not give up – Prayer is returning God’s attention of us to Him – giving our attention to God. He uses a parable the meaning of which we might miss, so tuned are we to the word justice. He tells them that even the unjust judge gives justice . . . so do not doubt that God will give you justice, but will there be faith? Will there be lives directed towards God in prayer – Lives from God? To what are we attending? Issues? Or God?? Perhaps this is what is behind Jesus’ warning – note the personal nature of this warning. Jesus is speaking ‘pay attention’ On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not do all this stuff in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
The purpose of the teaching of the church is to focus our minds and hearts on the Life that is in Jesus . . . And so Jesus’ opponents come to him, trying to trap him in his words – first the taxes question . . . there’s a controversial one . . . the Brexit of its day – do you pay taxes to Caesar, or not – in the Roman Empire or out? But the questioners haven’t paid attention to their own existence – give the image of Caesar to Caesar – but whose image do you bear? To whom do you belong? Your Life is the fruit of God’s Attention – pay attention to your Source. Don’t get cut off from Life – distracted by many things
Then what seems a clever question about marriage from the Saducees who say there is no resurrection . . . There is a deep irony of this story. Those who would deny the Resurrection have to use a story with no life in it. This pattern of a woman marrying the brothers if her husband died without an heir, Levirate marriage, focussed on marriage as the source of Life. The fruit of the Blessing of marriage – children.
But over and again fruitless marriages, seven times over – no Life. 7 deaths, no Life springing up. The argument against Resurrection Life is framed in a story which does not see Life as life but a repetitive story of death . . . a story told in the presence of the one who is Life, Jesus himself.
Finally, not paying attention to our lives, as coming to us moment by moment from God himself, we learn to make lives for ourselves. This is what it is to take the place of God.
Listen once more to those words of St Paul – The man of lawlessness opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
We take the place of God in the Temple of God – the Creation . . . and Life departs. For the Human cannot sustain the Earth, he cannot uphold all things by the word of his power. I will not go into the myriad details of climate collapse, of the extinction of living things . . . the helpless human seeking to order the creation as he sees fit . . . apart from God there is no life
The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living;
And we have a choice – it is a choice of attention – to attend to God and Life, or not
for to him all of them are alive.’
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, – If you give your attention to me – then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away – and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them – you give your attention elsewhere – I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life – attend to me – so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. – Those who are alive before me.
In the midst of Job’s afflictions it is his constant attention to God which gives him Hope. In the midst of death, he cries out
‘O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
May we attend – may we too Know our Life in God