Saturday, September 06, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, September 7, 2014 Romans 13:8-14 “Pay Attention”

The brilliant composer Deb Bly wrote a song that I love called “Pay Attention.” The words go something like this:

Are we almost there?
How much longer till I'm safe in bed at home?
How much money do I owe for what I own?
How much left to pay?

Pay attention
Pay attention
This is it, more or less
Who would ever guess
This is the best of times
This is the worst of times
And it's passing
Pay attention.[1]

We are not in the business of paying attention these days. We are looking ahead, with a long to-do list, things to check off, wondering about next summer’s vacation rental, next week’s shopping list, next month’s birthday presents to buy. We don’t really live in the present.

And if we’re not looking forward, we’re looking backward. Things aren’t as wonderful as they were when I was a kid. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. They used to teach Parker penmanship. They don’t anymore. We used to gather around the radio to listen to programs as a family. I always spent my summers working for my grandfather. Things were better then.

We don’t really live in the present. But the present is where we are, living, breathing, doing stuff. What would happen if we really paid attention to what was happening in this moment? Maybe we’d put down the IPhones, worried about who was wearing what to school tomorrow, or whether we were prepared for the big meeting on Wednesday.

Maybe we should pay attention. And maybe it’s not just a matter of whether we’re too focused on the wrong timeframe.

There’s a famous experiment that was conducted a number of years ago. Folks were asked to watch a video of a team passing a basketball back and forth. They were instructed to count the number of times the ball was passed by people wearing white. Simple enough, right? Well, in the middle of the video, a guy with a Gorilla suit walked into the frame, thumped his chest, and walked off again. He didn’t sneak in the back or anything, he walked smack dab in the middle of the picture.

And half the people who viewed the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all. As a matter of fact, they didn’t believe it happened and had to be re-shown the video to prove it.[2]

We could say that the folks who missed the gorilla were distracted – they were focused on the counting task, so it was no surprise they missed the gorilla. That’s true, but I wonder if it has applicability to our own distractedness.

Do we fully pay attention? Does our urge to multitask mean we pay scant attention to any one of the multiple tasks we are trying to accomplish? Most likely yes. Scientists say that  when we multitask, we usually do a poorer job on any of the tasks than we would have done had we paid attention to one thing, and one thing only. All of this goes to show that attention isn’t one of our strengths.

So what does any of this talk about paying attention have to do with what we’re hearing from the Scriptures today? Actually, a whole lot.

For our purposes this morning, let’s take a look at the passage from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul is a pastor, and he is highly attentive to what he hears from his parishioners. He pays attention. Whether he is responding to a letter from the Roman community or word of mouth, when he hears something that needs his attention, he drops everything and deals with it.

And what’s his message? Pay attention. Pay attention to the here and now. Attend to those around you. Now. Love those around you. Now. It is the fulfillment of the law.

Pay attention, because you don’t really know what is coming next. Paul says something interesting: “You know what time it is. It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” For Paul, this may mean he thinks that Jesus’ return is immanent. Whether or not we think Jesus is showing up this afternoon or even in our lifetimes is really not the question here. What does matter is that we need to pay attention.

And in paying attention, we need to think about how we live our lives in the present. Not the future, when we’ll somehow be better people or the world will be easier. Right now.

As Deb Bly writes: “Pay attention / This is it, more or less / Who would ever guess /
This is the best of times / This is the worst of times / And it's passing / Pay attention.”

This is precisely why Jesus goes into step-by-step instructions about how to deal with each other in the midst of conflict. He’s no fool. He knows that human beings get into arguments. Somebody’s feelings are hurt. Somebody feels disrespected. Somebody feels like they got the short end of the stick. And so there’s conflict.

Pay attention. Attend to the hurt while it is still something manageable, before it evolves into a festering sore that cannot be healed. Pay attention, because time passes and things don’t get better by leaving them alone.

We Christians like to think we’ve got it all together, but the fact is that we do not. The church in Rome in Paul’s time didn’t. Jesus’ own disciples didn’t. We most certainly don’t – why would there be hundreds, maybe thousands of different Christian denominations if we did have it all together?

Someone somewhere said, “that teaching is wrong, and if I don’t fix it, who knows where it will lead off in the future?” and then an argument started, and then another, and then…schism. And meanwhile, as the song says, time is passing.

Now is what we have. The present. Our Heavenly Father knew that – that’s why the name Moses got from him was “I am who I am.” The present. Pay attention. Don’t miss the gorilla in the frame. Fix the petty conflicts. Love each other. Attend to the present. Pay attention.


[1] Words/Music copyright 1994 D. G. Bly
[2] You can see the experiment on YouTube:

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