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November 27, 2011 | 8:00 a.m.
Attention Must Be Paid
John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 1:3–9
If you are going to live in this world, an encounter with Christ is unavoidable; we inevitably come up against him in his benefactions, in his answers to ultimate questions, in people for whom he is Lord and Master, in his judgment of us, and in his love for us.
Wallace MacPherson Alston
While driving home from an inspiring concert at Ravinia on a warm August evening several years ago, I became engrossed in conversation with my daughter, who was visiting us along with my granddaughter, who was eight years old at the time. Blessed with a keen sense of direction, my granddaughter, who was in the back seat of the car, realized that I needed to shift lanes in order to stay on the road that led home.
I vaguely heard her when she said, “Papaw, you need to move over,” but I paid her no mind. She repeated herself, but again I did not respond either by speaking to her or by moving the car into the other lane. Then in a slightly louder voice she called out, “Earth to John, Earth to John.” Though aware of her words, I was so immersed in the discussion I was having with her mother that once again I failed to respond. Finally, in desperation, or perhaps more likely in exasperation, she shouted, “Darn it, Papaw, move over!” Only she did not say, “Darn.” She said the other word, the one with the “m” in it instead of the “r.” Now that got my attention! “What did you say, young lady?” I asked incredulously, wondering where in the world she learned that bit of language. (Interesting that what we may tolerate coming from adults we are aghast at from the mouths of youngsters.)
In his celebrated play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller has Linda, the widow of Willy Loman, after Willy lost his job, say “Attention must be paid to such a person.” The cries of outrage and protest that have risen up in many cities and communities across this land in recent weeks and months are in part a testimony to the importance of paying attention, in this case to the jobless, homeless, and the otherwise forgotten and overlooked people of our society. The voice of the unattended is being heard in the land, and we deceive ourselves and put ourselves in danger of further disaster if we pay it no mind, act as if we didn’t hear it, and pay no attention to it.
It is this urgent work of attentiveness that is at the heart of our scripture this morning with its accompanying images of eschatological doom. I confess that I have difficulty with the idea of the second coming of Christ. Perhaps it is because I have trouble enough with the first coming of Christ into the world and the implications for me and the expectations of me if I take him seriously, as I try to do. It is not that I don’t believe that Christ will come again. I do. It is just that I have no idea what that is going to be like or look like, in spite of the elaborate and fanciful descriptions offered by those who either take literally what the Bible says about it or think they have the last word regarding the decoding of what the Bible describes. And my mind gets in the way, so that I have to keep reminding myself that my mind is finite and flawed, woefully limited most of the time and narrow the rest of the time. I believe. Help my unbelief.
Jesus was aware that the vultures were beginning to circle overhead and that his enemies on the ground were getting set to move in for the kill—literally. He warned his disciples that there would be tough times ahead, that after he was gone there would be torturous persecution and immense suffering. To underscore both the severity and the gravity of the situation, Jesus referred to cosmic dislocations that would herald the coming of Christ once more, that he would gather together from everywhere those who were disciples of the Lord, and that though everything else might pass away, his words would endure. Tennyson put it this way:
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.
Furthermore, he had already warned them that there would be those who would seek to exploit the situation, charlatans, flimflam and con artists, and opportunists of one sort or another who lust for glory and pose as rescuers and saviors. These false prophets and would-be messiahs would try to dazzle them with their grandiose rhetoric and seduce them with their preposterous promises, claiming to be who they could not possibly be or thinking they knew what they were talking about when in fact they didn’t have a clue.
I wonder if any of this sounds familiar to you, as familiar, for example, as a televised debate by candidates running for office? Or is it that some are running for celebrity status, for the glory, and will do anything, no matter what, to get it and to hang on to it and keep it from falling into the hands of others? In our celebrity-conscious culture, in which winning is the only thing, are we in danger of allowing our addictive and inordinate search for glory to supplant in us the glory that alone belongs to God? Do we mean what we sing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” or do we have our fingers crossed when we sing the Gloria Patri. As the poet Thomas Gray reminded us more than two centuries ago:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
and all that Beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
What Jesus said to his disciples was less a prediction of the future to come than it was a call to them to be faithful while waiting for that future to arrive. His words of warning were followed by a strong mandate to stay awake, to watch and wait, to keep alert. In a word, to pay attention. Now in our over-caffeinated culture, we don’t need to be reminded to stay awake. And Jesus was and is not trying to increase the ranks of insomniacs. It is not that we are asleep as it is that we are preoccupied with the wrong things. It is one thing to be warned. It is another thing to pay attention to the warning. And it is one thing to pay attention and another thing to take appropriate action regarding that to which attention has been paid.
Seventy years ago warnings were sounded, leading up to December 7 and a place called Pearl Harbor, but few paid attention, and soon we were in a bloody war. A decade ago knowledgeable people in the world of finance warned of the economic crisis to come. Few paid attention and it did, and now here we are. There were warnings and signs prior to 9/11, but few paid attention, and nearly 3,000 people died in a few quick horrible minutes. Some people knew and others had heard that children were being sexually assaulted, abused, and raped, but few paid attention, others looked away, and a prestigious university has been rocked with scandal. Attention must be paid.
But there is something else that Jesus is implying here about his return. It is as though he is saying, “From now on you are going to have me on your hands. For I will keep coming to you. I will continue to encounter you.” As the hymn writer put it, “In the rustling grass I hear him pass; he speaks to me everywhere.”
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that long ago God spoke in a variety of ways through the prophets. Then God spoke and speaks today in an ultimate and definitive way through Jesus Christ, who is the Inevitable Christ and who continues to come to us in the stranger in town who asks for directions, in the tear-stained face of the person whose loved one has died, in the homeless man seated on a piece of cardboard at the door of the church, in the girl being tutored by one of our volunteers, in the distressed person seated next to you in the pew or on the bus, in the child or spouse who has been abused, and in the desperation of the one trying to find work. And he comes to us also in the bread and cup of this sacramental table. He comes to us, and attention must be paid.
The word this Inevitable Christ inevitably speaks when he encounters us is the word “Love,” for as the embodiment of God, Jesus is the embodiment of love. Well, how in the world do you love a pedophile when all you feel is revulsion and disgust? How in the world do you love a serial killer when all you feel is hate and vengeance? By doing the loving thing needed under the circumstances irrespective of the feelings you may have. For love in the Bible, though not devoid of emotion, especially that of compassion, is primarily an action to redeem, reconcile, and rescue. In the case of the pedophile, you separate him from all children, not only for their sake and safety, but also for the sake of the predator, to keep him from behavior prompted by the demons of his own perversity. Likewise the serial killer, to protect society and to constrain his rage and aggression. And we don’t have to kill him to do that, lest we perpetrate the cycle of violence and death and find ourselves becoming what we seek to destroy.
But this Christ who keeps coming to us, pursuing us like Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” comes not only to judge and rescue, but to comfort and reassure when we are most afraid and on the verge of panic. In my library is a four-volume set of sermons preached at Union Chapel in Manchester by the renowned Scottish preacher and Bible expositor Alexander MacLaren during his forty-five-year ministry there from 1858 to 1903, when he retired. Born in Glasgow, MacLaren tells the story of his going to his first job as a young lad in a town not far from his home in Glasgow. Between it and the town where his new job was lay the dark and forbidding moor with its uneven terrain and its shadowy contours that were enough to conjure up frightening images in the imagination of a young boy.
MacLaren’s father went with him that first day on the job and instructed him to return home as quickly as possible at the end of the work week. Throughout that week, Alex MacLaren thought about the dreaded moor he would have to traverse later on. When the time came, he started out, whistling to keep up his courage. But with each step he became more and more frightened. Suddenly, up ahead of him through the foggy mist, he saw the outline of a figure approaching him. Not knowing who it was, his fears mounted almost to a state of panic. “Then,” writes MacLaren years later, “out of that foggy mist came the head and shoulders of the grandest man on earth. He was bound to have known I was frightened, but all he said was, ‘Alex, I wanted to be with you so badly, that I came to meet you.’ Then shoulder to shoulder we walked down into that moor together, and I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore.”
Long time ago, God wanted so much to be with us in this thing called life, that in the person of Jesus Christ he came to meet us, to let us know we are loved and that we don’t have to be afraid anymore.
He’s coming. Again and again and again, he is coming.
Pay attention! For attention must be paid.
It is probably a sign of my age, but of late I have been recalling and reliving scenes from my childhood, most of them pleasant, some painful. The other day I found myself remembering a prayer song I had learned in childhood and have not thought of in decades. I realized that it is, in a sense, an Advent prayer. I hope that you will consider making it your Advent prayer during this season.
Let us pray,
Into my heart, into my heart,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Come in today, come in to stay,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Out of my heart, out of my heart,
Shine out of my heart, Lord Jesus.
Shine out today, shine out always,
Shine out of my heart, Lord Jesus.