Getting Our Attention

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut  on the First Sunday of Advent,  November 27, 2011, by Christopher L. Webber.

I remember driving to the post office one day and the radio was on and there came a commercial for luxury ice cream – hand made, a pint at a time.  Whether you have a few luxuries or a lot, it said, you ought to treat yourself to this. And that was followed immediately by a fund-raising message about poverty and hunger: 19% of the children in this country, it said, don’t have enough to eat, so they were auctioning off a guitar and some other things to raise money for food and training programs to help the hungry.  I wondered whether someone in the radio station did that on purpose to get some attention.  I wondered whether anyone else would even notice.

How do you get people’s attention?

I drove on into town and picked up my mail and as I drove out of the post office I saw a rescue vehicle for the Sharon Hospital go by – and noticed that the woman driving it was smoking. As if she had never heard that cigarettes and health care don’t go together!

How do you get people’s attention?

The first reading this morning raises exactly that question. Or maybe it starts just after the question was raised and the prophet is considering answers. How would God get our attention? The prophet has some advice for God: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down and make the mountains smoke … ” “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down and make the mountains smoke” the way you used to. Let us know that you are God and that we’d better shape up. Do something to get our attention.

The prophets must often have felt pretty frustrated.  Here they come with a message straight from God: “The Assyrians are coming; we’ll all be destroyed; nothing will be left; repent.” And what happened?  Well, the Assyrians came, and the Babylonians came, and others as well and Israel was destroyed and nothing was left, but even then, you don’t get the impression that a lot of repentance took place. More than once when a prophet foresaw destruction the king had him put in chains and fed on bread and water to wait and see. After all they had serious business to take care of: armies to feed and foes to fight and walls to build or tear down and all the important business of running a small middle eastern kingdom which has never been easy. And this prophet is hurting people’s morale. We can worry later about repentance.  Of course, later was too late.  Later they were in captivity.

And still today the prophets have the same message.  We have scientific prophets who can foresee the melting of the Greenland icecap and the flooding of coastal areas and more violent weather and we can see it beginning to happen. But does it really get much attention, do you expect politicians to mention it when they could be talking about taxes and pocketbook concerns? Not likely. Human beings have a deep seated concern for whatever is right in front of them and doesn’t require too much thought or too many changes in our plans.  And the politicians know it.

How do you really get people’s attention?

Isaiah has a suggestion for God: tear heaven apart and come down. You used to do things like that, he complains, why not now? Well, fact is, that whatever God did before didn’t do much good either. Remember the flood?  Shouldn’t that have gotten people’s attention? As a matter of fact, it probably did as the water rose around them and they went under for the last time but by then they weren’t thinking about repentance so much as finding a log to hold onto.  I’ve always like the story of Dives and Lazarus and Dives suggestion to Abraham that his brothers would repent if someone went to them from the dead but Abraham, speaking from long experience, says: “If they don’t hear Moses and the prophets neither will they believe even if someone went to them from the dead.” Yes, we know that now because Jesus rose from the dead and when he met with the disciples the gospel matter of factly records that they worshiped him – but some doubted.

We have this amazing capacity to ignore whatever doesn’t fit our immediate plans.  And God has a long track record of respecting our freedom. If we have our agenda, God will not rend the heavens to change it. And for good reason.  First, of course, because, as we all know, coercion makes no converts. I can twist your arm and make you say uncle but that won’t change your character. It only builds resentment at having your arm twisted. Second, it’s also obvious that however dire the warnings we can easily ignore them or misinterpret them. Wouldn’t you think that by now someone driving an ambulance would know that smoking is dangerous to your health?  But visit any hospital and you will find hospital workers standing outside the door smoking. before going back inside to care for people dying of cancer and heart disease caused by smoking.  What more obvious message could God provide?

And then there’s misinterpretation. Maybe you know the story of the farmer who came to his pastor saying God was calling him into the ministry: he had looked up at the clouds and there were the letters PC- and he knew it was for him to Preach Christ.  (This was before PC meant something about computers) No, said his pastor, it means “Plant corn.”  St. Francis of Assisl had a similar experience when he knelt in a ruined church and heard God tell him “build my church.” So Francis set out to put the stones and mortar back in place and worked long and hard before he learned that the message had to do with people, the living church, and that his calling was to preach Christ and try to get people’s attention for the message of the gospel. And then there are all the stories people tell about near-death experiences: how they were certified as dead and how they found themselves in a region of blinding light and familiar figures all in white there to welcome them. But a famous scientist suggested that what that really was was a recapitulation of the experience of birth – neurons in the brain reviving long-buried memories of emerging from birth ~ into the blinding light of the delivery room with doctors and nurses bathed in light and welcoming the newborn baby. There’s always another way of interpreting the message.

So I understand Isaiah’s frustration, but on the basis of the record it would seem there isn’t much God can do that will get us to do more than give evidence of mild interest. You say I will die and that life beyond that depends on how I live now? Well, that’s interesting but right now I’m reading a good book, right now I’ve got a living to earn, right now I’ve got guests, right now I’ve got to work on my “to do” list and if responding to God is on it, it isn’t very near the top.

I think, in short, that getting my attention is something only I can do.  God has done everything God can do; now it’s up to me to listen.  Surely all of us know that human beings are not immortal and that there is an aspect of our nature that is more than physical, indeed that life without love is poor indeed. We know it.  We do know it. But connecting what we know with what we do somehow seems to be beyond most of us most of the time. And preachers can try to scare people into it or coax them into it but finally it’s up to each of us to use our freedom responsibly and responsively. And I would simply suggest that if the issue is – I think it is – an awareness that makes a difference that is built up very slowly, one step at a time.

Maybe you remember that prayer of the Breton fisherman: “Lord, I will be very busy today and I may forget you, but do not you forget me.”  That’s a good start. But I was suggesting in last week’s sermon that what matters is what we do when we don’t have time to think what to do and what matters for the Breton fisherman and all of us is an awareness of God deeper than conscious thought that shapes every action instinctively, that flows out of who we are or maybe, who we have become and that, I believe, flows in turn out of decisions deliberately made and a discipline deliberately adopted that enable God to mold us into the kind of people God intends us to be.

This is Advent Sunday, New Year’s Day, a time to begin again. Who do we want to be this year? Is there a possibility that life would be better if I offered more of it more often to God?  The Prayer Book provides forms of prayer for morning, noon, early evening, and evening, it provides the classic daily offices which were intended to enable every Christian to frame every day with prayer and scripture. The Forward Movement publishers provide Forward Day by Day with daily meditations. There’s no lack of guidance. It’s up to us.  And what I know is that as you put some such discipline in place the awareness, deep awareness, grows and in the midst of struggle – trying to haul in that net in a high sea, trying to keep your cool in traffic, trying to remain centered in stress – the heavens will open – probably very, very quietly – and you will remember that you are not alone and that, as Isaiah puts it toward the end of this morning’s reading, “we are the clay and God is the potter,” and God is shaping our lives, shaping them to hold ever more and more of God’s grace and strength and peace.

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