Paying Attention

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 19), August 11, 2013

Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29—12:2, Luke 12:49-56

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Jesus said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky.”  Is he sure of that?  Because I’ve known some weather reporters who were pretty badly wrong.  And that’s professionals!  They didn’t have satellite imagery in Jesus’ day, nor radar imaging of weather fronts; they were limited to what their own eyes could see.  And I know just how often I’m wrong about what the weather will be like on any given day.  Just this last winter, one Sunday we cancelled service at Birka because of a storm that was supposed to hit late Saturday night and early Sunday morning.  When I got up, I shook my head—I thought we’d made the wrong decision.  It wasn’t a perfect day, but no worse than any other that winter.  And then, about the time service started at Augustana, the snow started falling down heavily.  By the time I would have been leaving, there was a lot of snow on the ground.  I was so glad I didn’t have to try to make it out there!

But the thing is, I don’t have to pay much attention to the signs the weather makes; my livelihood doesn’t depend on what the weather does.  And if I do need to know what the weather’s going to be like in advance, I can look up what the experts say.  I don’t have to depend on my own experience and scrutiny of the day’s conditions.  And when I get things wrong, I can just laugh it off.  No big deal.  A farmer can’t do that; and most of Jesus’ audience would have been farmers.  I guarantee you that like farmers today, they were paying darn close attention to what the weather did, and constantly adjusting their farming techniques to adapt to it.  When something is that important, you pay attention.

How much attention do we pay, every day, to what God is doing in us and around us?  How much do we care about it?  Not as much as we should, I can tell you that.  I have this thing I do with the Confirmation class, and I’ve done it in the past with everyone from little children to adults.  When the group meets, we go around the table and everyone has to say a God moment—one time they’ve seen or felt God’s presence in their lives or in the world around them in the last week or two.  It’s hard!  Most people, the first few times we do it, can’t think of a single thing.  It’s not that God isn’t there, it’s that they weren’t paying attention.  They weren’t looking for the signs of God’s presence; they weren’t listening prayerfully for God’s Word.  Well, I say “they,” but I’ve had this problem, too.  It’s so easy to get caught up in life, in what we need to do next, that you don’t even stop to think about God.  Even for pastors!  You spend all your attention on your to-do list, and getting all the work done, and doing things with your friends and family, and then when it comes time to say your prayers at night you just toss off a few quick things that come into your head and fall asleep.  Then the next day you get up and do it all again, on auto-pilot.  God was all around you all day, and you didn’t notice!

That’s one of the reasons I like asking about God-moments regularly: it keeps me accountable.  It’s not just something for the group, I need to do it, too!  There are times when I get to the “God moment” time in our Confirmation class and realize that I haven’t been paying attention to the signs of God’s presence in the last week.  The thing is, no matter what my week was like, there’s always something in it that has God’s fingerprints all over it, even if I didn’t notice it at the time.  And if you’re not paying attention—if you can’t even see what the signs are—how can you possibly interpret them?  Chances are that even if you know what God wants you to do and how God wants you to live, you won’t be paying attention to that, either.  We’re all really good at ignoring God, and what God wants.  No wonder Jesus gets upset with people!

Right before today’s reading, Jesus told two parables about servants waiting for their master’s return.  Some of the servants were waiting for him and paying attention, and were ready when their master came.  Some of the servants were trying to pay attention, but didn’t know what to look for.  But the worst ones knew what the master wanted, and knew what to look for, but they didn’t bother to pay attention and do what they should have done—instead of taking care of the master’s home, they got drunk and started to abuse their fellow servants.  The bad servants put their own selfishness ahead of their love for their master and for their fellow servants.  They weren’t waiting for their master; they didn’t see the signs of his coming.  They saw only what they wanted to see, and took advantage of it.

You see, that’s the other thing that keeps people from seeing God’s presence for what it is, and from seeing how God wants them to live their lives.  When they do see the signs, all too often they convince themselves that it means what they want it to mean.  Take the false prophets in today’s first reading.  God complains about the false prophets who lead people astray.  They prophesy the deceit of their own heart.  They probably believe what they’re saying; they think they know what God wants them to tell people.  But in reality, they’re lying to themselves.  They have heard only what they want to hear.  They’ve found ways of interpreting the Scriptures and the world around them so that God only says things they agree with.

We do that a lot, these days, I think.  It’s not the sin of any one group; it’s pretty common among American Christians of all churches.  Conservatives do it; so do liberals; so do moderates.  People have an issue they feel strongly about, so they find a few verses that support them, and they convince themselves that’s all they need to know because obviously God agrees with them.  Sometimes people do that in support of some cause; sometimes people do it just so they can sit back comfortably and don’t have to do anything other than what they’ve always been doing.  It’s easy; you don’t have to think; you don’t have to take the chance that God might want to teach you something new, or lead you to do something outside your comfort zone.

But God’s Word is like a fire, says the LORD, like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.  God comes to comfort the afflicted, yes, but God also comes to stir up the comfortable, to break in to the neat little boxes we’ve put ourselves in, to lead us out into God’s world.  God comes to make all things new: a new heaven and a new earth.  Even when we’re in our comfort zone, there are things in the world—in our own community and in our own hearts—that have no place in God’s kingdom.  Hatred, jealousy, fear, greed, bigotry, pettiness, bullying, deception, injustice, all those things we shake our heads at when we see them on the news and ignore when we see them in our daily lives—those things have no place in God’s kingdom.  But we don’t want to face our own sin, our own brokenness, and so we pretend they’re only problems for other people.  Or we twist God’s Word to find justifications for our actions.  We ignore our own faults, and we ignore God’s presence.  It’s easier, more comfortable.  Nicer.  And then God comes and exposes our self-justifications for what they really are.

It can be hard to face the truth; it can be hard to face our own brokenness.  It’s hard to admit we need a savior, that we can’t fix ourselves.  It’s a lot easier to point out other peoples’ mistakes, and it’s easier still to shake your head and do nothing.  I wonder if that’s why Jesus says he came to bring division, rather than peace.  I have seen churches that were transformed by God’s power, which brought them new life and growth and a deeper faith and discipleship.  I have seen families, full of brokenness and dysfunction, given strength by God to work through the issues that plague them to become healthy and nurturing and loving.  I have seen God’s power at work in the world … but none of that happens easily.

Watching for the signs of God’s presence, listening for God’s Word … all of that brings change.  It means you have to step outside of your comfort zone.  It means you can’t just work on autopilot.  It means you have to confront issues that you would rather keep buried and forgotten.  And not everyone wants to do that!  It’s easier and simpler not to; it’s easier to pretend that everything is fine; it’s easier to just convince yourself that the Emperor’s new clothes are gorgeous than to admit he hasn’t got any on.  So there is division, and dispute, just as Jesus said.  Not because God wants division, but because deep down we don’t want to let God bring the fire of his Holy Spirit into our lives and into our hearts.  We would rather close our ears and go our own way.  We would rather hear comforting lies than the truth that saves us.

And yet, God still keeps coming.  We may ignore or misinterpret God’s Word; we may ignore or misinterpret God’s work in and around us.  We may listen to false prophets who tell us what we want to hear.  But through it all, God keeps speaking.  God keeps sending us the fire of God’s Word, the light of truth.  God keeps coming to us; God keeps working in us and around us, calling us to follow.  May we learn to hear God’s Word, and follow in God’s ways.

Amen.

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