“Pay Attention”. Sunday Sermon 6/14/20. Alan Neale.
Trinity Church, Newport RI

The rector of a previous parish in which I served in England was an Army Colonel before he was ordained. This may well explain why sometimes, during worship, if something went awry he would bark at his congregation, “As you were!”. All other times he expected that they would be “paying attention” and this is definitely the theme if not the title of this sermon… “pay attention”.
Matthew chapter 10, verse 11: “Jesus charged them, ‘Whatever village or town you enter… stay there until you leave”. Perhaps this verse seems almost redundant – “stay until you leave”… what else can you do? – but a second glance proves this not to be so redundant after all!

You have had the experience when you are in conversation with someone at a social gathering (perhaps even coffee after church service) when suddenly you realize you have lost that person’s attention, their gaze may still be on you (well, largely) but their minds and their ears seem elsewhere. Our companion in conversation seems to have reversed the charge of Jesus, “Leave the place, in mind, even though you stay there physically”!

We want, we need, perhaps even we crave, that people give us their full attention. The great German theologian, Karl Barth, once said that we fully, properly become human when we hear God addressing us; but we also feel fully human, of value, a real person when we sense and know that someone is giving us his/her full attention.
Adam Bellow once wrote of his father, Saul – he writes poignantly, plaintively of his father’s often physical and generally emotional absence. Every child craves and needs attention – starved of such food for life, often unbecoming and strange behaviour takes place!

In Richard Reeves’ book “President Nixon – Alone in the White House”, the author writes, “At a demonstration of a new police ‘sniffing device’ designed to detect the presence of humans – presumably to find people hiding – the thing went off as it got close to the President. He clapped his hands. “See,” he said, “my critics are wrong!”” – I am a real person. We detect the real presence, the real person, with ourselves when someone gives us his full attention.

“When you enter a place, stay there until you leave the place” – all seems a little redundant at first, until we recognize the value and the vocation of paying, giving, attention to others.

What keeps us from paying attention? Sometimes we bother ourselves with things that simply are none of our business! We know, from other Gospel passages, that sometimes the disciples were a little too interested in what their fellows were doing rather than in their own task. When Peter asks Jesus about John (John 21:21), he asks, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered (almost starkly), “What is that to you? You must follow me (pay attention to me).”

What keeps us from paying attention? Sometimes we allow ourselves to be too distracted by the mundane! The disciples were carrying the barest minimum for the journey “no bread, no bag, no money; wear sandals but carry only one tunic” (by the way, this commitment to travelling light could save some heated discussions between partners but enough of that!). Who would blame the disciples if during some of their conversations, they began to be distracted by pressing concerns of what shall we eat, what shall we drink, how long will we be here and yet Jesus charges, “Stay there until you leave that place” – give it, its occupants, your full attention.

What keeps us from paying attention? Sometimes we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the task before us rather than simply “doing the next right thing”. The disciples had a sense of the great mission to which Jesus had called them, for which Jesus had commissioned and empowered them- the great mission of calling for repentance, of casting out many demons and of healing many that were sick. Can you not imagine their frustration, staying put when there seemed so much to do? I am reminded of the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” – rushing from place to place, continually looking at its watch, “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be late”. So much to do, so little time to do it.

“When you enter a house, stay there until you leave it.”

Today’s first lesson (Genesis 18) tells of the way in the magnetic and magisterial three men “stayed” until the miracle of birth had been heard and received by Abraham and Sarah. And surely it was Abraham’s attention to these wandering guests that opened his heart to receive such a blessing of a child!

It generally is about time… as we give others our full attention, that we restrict our comments and enlarge our listening. And so the Psalmist writes, “I will listen, listen, to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his people….. to those who turn their hearts to him” (Psalm 85:8). “Turning their hearts to him” – isn’t this another way of saying, “Giving him their full attention”.

“Stay there, stay there, until you leave the place.”

But who, we ask (perhaps rather plaintively and rather poignantly), who will give us their full attention? Friends, our Father God gives to us each His full and loving and enabling and accepting attention! As Paul triumphantly declares – God grants a transformative, triumphant peace and in our weakness, God attends to us; in our rebellion, God attends to us and then “reconciles us to himself” – allowing us to give Him our full attention without shame or guilt or fear or embarrassment!

It surely is no coincidence that before ever the disciples were sent out, they were first called by Jesus – He gave them His full attention so that they could be whole, secure enough to give others their own full attention.

Some time ago at the suggestion of friends, Wendy and I watched the film “The Hours”. It was not exactly a family fun movie, but it is wonderfully acted and, I believe, its message (in part) is liberating. Towards the very end of the film, the character playing Virginia Woolf says these words, “To look life in the face, always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is….. at last to know it, to love it for what it is” – this is paying attention.

In Christ, God calls you and me to look life in the face (to know it, to love it, for what it is) – to give life, and those before us, our full attention. And be well assured, so God gives us His full attention.

Remember these engaging words of Jesus, not redundant, surely not unnecessary in any way, “When you enter a town or village, stay there, stay there, until you leave the place”. Be attentive!