“Choosing to Pay Attention”

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 “Choosing to Pay Attention”
John 4.1-41
March 22, 2020

Paying attention is essential to our everyday life. The quality of our life is influenced by what we give our attention to. Consider reflecting on your life up to this point. You might see how the fashioning of your life comes from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. Looking a little deeper, you might see the myriad options, thoughts, and feelings you didn’t focus on and the relative ones you did, which became your ‘reality.’ If you are like me, at this point, I am bamboozled by the fact that if I paid attention to other things, my reality and my life would be very different. What we pay attention to matters.

It is what keeps us from distracted driving; it is necessary for deepening our relationship with those we love, and it also affects how we encounter our lives. One of the most significant challenges we face is being present at the moment, finding the flow of creativity, and maximizing our presence. What we give our attention to impacts our experiences. One psychologist put it, "My experience is what I agree to attend to." What we pay attention to matters because in giving our attention, we will discover the tiny threads of healing and transformation that are developing moment to moment. When we are distracted, we miss what is happening, really happening, in front of us. But when we are present with one another, with ourselves, and with God, focusing our energy on the positive, our worldviews and understanding of life will expand, and the negativity of life will shrink.

Of course, this takes time. To pay attention in a way that leads to what Barbara Brown Taylor calls reverence means we must give up the false belief that we are not gods, and that we are a part of something much more significant than ourselves. The healing that can come from paying attention requires a willingness to go slower, take detours, and endure pushback that comes from others who might see this pace as wrong or not normal. Paying attention is what will lead us deeper into the heart of the Trinity.

Consider today's Gospel lesson. A lot happens in this story, but the main event is Jesus restoring sight to a blind man. Before we continue with the story, it is essential to pay attention to a few details, like what Jesus says in verse 2 in response to the disciples wanting to blame someone for the blindness. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," Jesus tells, "he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Where the disciples want to focus on blame, Jesus rejects the idea that God brings about sickness to punish them for wrongdoings. Jesus offers a different approach, one that affirms the agency of this person who was cast to the side by society. Jesus wants the disciples to see the man as God sees him—a beloved child of God.

It isn't just the disciples who need their sight checked. It is the entire community. After Jesus tells the man to wash in the pool of Siloam, nobody in the city recognizes the man. "Isn't this the man who used to sit and beg?" If it wasn't bad enough to be harassed by his neighbors, the man had to endure from religious authorities as well. The man who was blind but now can see had to undergo an excruciating examination by these folks, which included his parents, who out of fear leaves him out to dry. Rather than embracing what happened, the community and their leaders gave their attention to blaming someone for this man's blindness. When there was a chance to celebrate the restoration of this man's sight and the subsequent restoration of the community, the religious leaders showed contempt. It is as if they would rather pay attention to how the 'normal' was disrupted and ignore the illumination of God happening right in front of them, which is what the blind man does.

In the religious leader's last examination of the man, and in an attempt to finally have reason to arrest Jesus, the man declares, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They keep pushing the man to give the details, an attempt to deflect what happened, but the man persists, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? The man gets theological, too, and calls out there need for control. He calls out how they want to blame someone rather than embracing the gift that is happening in their midst. Radically the man challenges the desire to remain in the dark rather than dwelling in the light of God.

The task of the church is to restore the community at all costs. An essential component to the restoration of community and justice is listening to people without the boxes we wish to place them in. The Gospel lesson today invites and calls us to see beyond the surface of our experiences and to pay attention to their entirety. Assuming things gets us nowhere. But listening to the concerns and perspectives of others, standing up for the rights and well-being of others—even when we don't benefit from them directly or if they challenge what we think is normal or status quo. We are to address the injustices in our communities head-on.

Jesus does this at the end of the story, too. In verse 39, Jesus says, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may be blind." The judgment Jesus speaks of is seeing things as they are—and the man he encountered experiences the restoration of his true self. As one pastor put it so beautifully, “The blind man sees Jesus as wholly and purely as Jesus sees him; the gaze and the recognition in this story are mutual. Because the healed man has no preconceptions, because the spiritual ground he stands on is soft and supple, he can see God as God is.” The blind man, you and me, we are image-bearers of the Divine.

Friends, we are alive in some unusual times. With each new day, we face the challenge of paying attention or turning away. We will have the choice to pay attention to the ways we are interconnected or to turn away from this reality, seeking to figure out who is to blame. We will have a choice to pay attention to the new normal, which includes being church and neighbors differently; or choose to hide behind dogmatic political views or our legalistic approaches to justice, fairness, generosity, and sympathy. We will have the choice to pay attention in a way that invites us to have eyes to see God in our neighbors, regardless of whether they are sick or healthy, insured or uninsured, citizen or foreigner, protected or vulnerable. Paying attention to the goodness of God in our lives amid the chaos will be what saves us as God’s people.

Paying attention is what leads to the blind man’s sight being restored. It took time, too. And along the way, he encountered challenges, and still, he persisted. We are on a journey, not unlike his—facing life together in new, unforeseen ways. What we can learn from the blind man is the importance of listening for God’s voice, responding to it in faith, and sharing what we know to be true about God—that though we were once blind, in trouble, feeling too far down and out—we now see, can sing a new song, and that God rescued us from the impossible.

In the coming days and weeks friends, take time to pay attention. Take time to listen for God’s voice amidst the chaos by shutting down the distractions and being fully present to the moment. The more we pay attention, the clearer we will see God’s presence in our midst. To see takes time, like having a friend takes time. So be patient with yourself and with others. Allow each other time to let our eyes adjust to the new things we see. And while the practice of paying attention offers no quick fix for such weariness, with guaranteed results printed on the side, it is one way into a different way of life, full of treasure for those who are willing to pay attention to exactly where they are.

Friends, as we choose to pay attention, may these words from poet Mary Oliver guide us on our way:
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

May it be so. Amen.

Adam Quinn of First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln



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