Scripture: John 14:23-29
The low point of my academic career—or I should say one of the low points of my studies—happened one day when I was in middle school. My social studies teacher, Mrs. Liscomb, was telling the class about something, and I was busily talking at the back of the room with my friend Steve Jacques. Finally, in exasperation, Mrs. Liscomb said, “Hamilton, what was I just saying?” I said, “I don’t know—I wasn’t paying attention.” “I know,” she said. To which I retorted, oh so cleverly, “Then why’d you ask?” After the class hooted at my ingenious response, Mrs. Liscomb, justifiably upset by my insolence, came to my house to talk to my parents about it. And I sheepishly had to admit my impertinence. That may be the reason, in fact, why, to this day, I don’t like side conversations in meetings. I suspect it’s my unresolved guilt.
“To pay attention,” said the poet Mary Oliver, “this is our endless and proper work” (“Yes! No!”). In a world of unending distractions, paying attention is often at a premium. Who of us picks up their phone before even getting out bed, or drops out of conversations as soon as the phone beeps or vibrates, or scrolls through endless news clips or cat videos or social media feeds, looking for—something? And all the while, we too often don’t really pay attention to anything worth paying attention to.
I wonder if it’s fair to say that Jesus was about nothing if not that: paying attention. What he wanted, above all, was for us to pay attention to the God at the heart of our lives. Not the frills, not the baubles, not all the countless distractions that take us away from the heart of things. No. Pay attention to the “God of grace and glory.”
As Jesus readies himself and his followers for his parting, he talks to them at great length—five chapters worth, a quarter of the gospel of John—about the things he most wants them to know and to remember when he’s gone. And what does he tell them? He tells them that it’s when we’re steeped in love that God and Jesus come to make their home among us. He tells them that, no matter what happens to them, they will be immersed in Christ’s peace. “Don’t be upset,” he says to them. “Don’t be distraught” (John 14:27, The Message). ‘There is nothing to worry about,’ he seems to say. ‘I will always be with you.’
We, of course, find it hard to believe this. There are never-ending causes of worry in our lives. We worry about war and poverty and the economy and the state of God’s creation. We worry about whether we’ll have enough resources to last us until we die. We worry about our children, and whether they’re developing as they should, and if they have real friends, and whether they’ll have the future we so hope they’ll have. “What? Me worry,” said Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. Yes, indeed we do worry. And for very good reason, we might add.
So Jesus figuratively collars us, and says essentially, ‘What I’m telling you is crucial. It’s what I most want you to know. Pay attention. Nothing can separate you and me. I am with you. And when I die, the Spirit will walk with you always.’
And we might well respond, “Yeah, right! All those things I’m worried about—they’re still there. They don’t magically go away just because you say you’re by our side.” And of course, those worries and anxieties don’t just vanish. Life isn’t that simple. We hurt, we weep, we fail. Life can be tender and raw. And Jesus doesn’t just make the difficulties magically disappear.
Nonetheless, Jesus is insistent. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (14:27). And it’s this that we’re to pay attention to—the ongoing presence of the Spirit, or what John calls the “Counselor” or the “Helper” or the “Advocate.” The Christ who died has risen, and continues to be with us, even, and maybe especially, when we feel overwhelmed by the struggles that come our way. The Advocate is there to soothe; the Helper is there to bring peace.
And we encounter this Advocate, this Helper, this ongoing presence of the Holy One, as we pay attention to the infinite, though frankly often subtle, manifestations of holiness that come our way. Our work is to notice. Our work is to see a sacred ribbon running through life. And then it’s to breathe—which is, after all, what “spirit” means.
Franklin Foer points to an essay of Mary Oliver’s, in which Oliver remembers, as a child, becoming separated from her parents as they’re walking together along a stream. And in her aloneness, Oliver begins to notice the specialness of what’s around her. “What she sees,” says Foer, “isn’t an undifferentiated mass of a forest or an abstraction called ‘nature.’ Her revelation is the pluralism of the woods. ‘One tree is like another, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether.’ This discovery of the ‘harmonies and also the discords of the natural world’ fills her with ecstatic joy. ‘Doesn’t anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the/ middle of the night and/ sing?’
“The [essay of Oliver’s] concludes with a sentence that implants itself in the brain, because it is . . . so far upstream from the way we live: ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion.’ And, of course, this is so. The unnoticed can’t possibly be loved” (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/mary-olivers-poetry-captures-our-relationship-technology/589039/). Pay attention, says Mary Oliver, because attention is the beginning of devotion. And we might add that it is the beginning of peace.
What we followers of Christ are to pay attention to is the richness of grace that shows up right in the midst of an average day. We pay attention, we might say, by being thankful for the incredible wonder and privilege of life. Franklin Foer quotes another of Mary Oliver’s poems. Though she had suffered abuse as a child, and, like all of us, had had her share of personal anguish, she was nevertheless able to see beyond those struggles “to a place of overwhelming gratitude. ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’” Remember her earlier words: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” And what better way to pay attention than to be married to amazement. Married to the aroma of lilacs outside the church door. Married to the sound of Bruce Springsteen singing “My Hometown.” Married to a Chagrin Falls that brings people and balloons and rides and delicious rich food together to celebrate every Memorial Day weekend. Married, in gratitude, to amazement. That’s one way we pay attention and find peace.
Another way we pay attention is in a simple approach that many have forgotten. And that is to be for rather than just against. At Yale University’s commencement this past Monday, its president, Peter Salovey, asked graduates to make sure they were not just against things, but to discover and to express what they are for. It’s easy to be against things. You can be against Trump or Pelosi or socialism or capitalism. You can be against border walls or trade wars or guns or capital punishment. You can be against the neighbors or climate change or historical preservation or even the Indians. Salovey quotes one of his Yale predecessors, Kingman Brewster, who said in 1974, “Many of us have just been on a ten-year trip of moral outrage: anti-Wallace, anti-War, anti-Watergate. We have been so sure about what we were against that we have almost forgotten how difficult it is to know what we are for and how to achieve it” (https://president.yale.edu/speeches-writings/speeches/what-are-you).
So what are we for here at Federated? Not just against, but for. If you were to ask me, this is what I would say. I’d say I’m for a church in which not a day goes by, not a moment or meeting or encounter goes by, but that God is celebrated as being at the core of all of life. I’d say I’m for a church in which the proclamation is that everyone is adored by the God who has created us—not just you and me and people like us, but everyone: people of color, LGBTQ people, poor people, rich people, conservatives, progressives, women, men, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians—everyone. I’d say I’m for a church with abundant opportunities for children, youth, adults and seniors. I’d say I’m for a church in which we are so bathed in holy love that we can’t let a day go by, not a moment go by, that we don’t seek somehow to spread the love we’ve received to someone we know or someone we don’t. I’d say I’m for a church in which we’re looking for ways to take flowers or deliver a meal or advocate for peace or reduce our carbon footprint. I’d say I’m for a church in which we trust our leaders and our leaders are responsive and transparent. I’d say I’m for a church in which people’s commitments to God in return for holy grace were so full and animated and generous that pledging was through the roof and financial giving was abundant. That’s what I would say I was for.
We pay attention and live into Christ’s peace by noticing and being grateful for the miraculous world in which we live. We pay attention and find that peace, too, not by being just against things, but by doing the hard and imaginative work of being for the things for which Christ stood. There’s yet another way in which we pay attention and discover the richness of Christ’s peace. It’s related to what it is to be “for” rather than “against,” and it has to do with the advocacies and passions for which we stand and the ways we treat each other. This peace comes as we honor and care for family and community and world.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave the commencement address at this year’s Yale University graduation. Nigerian-born, she’s an author of great repute. And she writes and speaks about our common life with a rare clarity and passion. During her commencement address, Adichie asked the graduates, “Should America be a country where fear is always an option for children in school? Where a child might never come home because that child has been murdered by another child with a gun? Should America be a country where black people live in fear of their lives because [some] members of the police do not seem to think of them as full human beings? Should America be a country where women are in fear of not having full autonomy over their bodies?
“What should America be?” she asked. “Conceptualize that America and then make the case for that America, not only in obvious ways, such as how you vote, but also in smaller ways: how you treat other people, how you think of other people . . . the acts of kindness you do, the people you choose to listen to and to hear. And today, hearing people can often be the best way of showing them that they matter.” Learn to say, “I’m sorry,” she said. Never apologize for being who you are.
And she finished her address by quoting a friend who told her that Americans don’t have friends because they work too much. And Adichie said, “Prove him wrong. Have friends. Many friends, or just one. Hold your family close . . . Hold your friends close. Stand up for your loved ones. Tell the people you love that you love them. Tell them often. Find reasons to laugh. . . . Never admire quietly. If I admire something about someone, I let them know. We do not always recognize what is beautiful in ourselves until someone has pointed it out to us. . . . Be kind.” And then bringing us full circle, she finished with this: “Paying attention is one of the most beautiful acts of kindness” (https://news.yale.edu/2019/05/20/envision-world-you-want-and-be-kind-author-tells-graduating-class?utm_source=YNemail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=yn-05-21-19). Yes, indeed: pay attention.
It’s a season of spring and Memorial Day and Blossom and graduations, isn’t it. And it’s also, ever and always, the season of Christ’s resurrection word to us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” said Jesus. Christ’s peace is a peace rooted in a rich attentiveness to the marvels of this God-given world. Christ’s peace is a peace devoted to the richly hopeful priority of being for the ways of inclusion and compassion. And Christ’s peace is a peace that issues forth in a love that pays careful and abiding attention to the people we know and meet. All of them. Christ is here. Pay attention. Let there be peace on earth.