Paying (and Praying) Attention

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1570-1575, by Jacobo Robusti Tintoretto, Munich.

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18, 2010. The lectionary readings are Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.

Simone Weil was a French philosopher who struggled with Christianity at a very deep level. Among her thoughts, written down in her notebooks, was an oft-quoted sentence about paying attention. “Absolute attention,” she writes, “is prayer.”

In the lesson from Genesis we see what happens when Abraham and Sarah simply pay attention. Abraham could have ignored the three strangers. He could have simply gone on about his business when he saw them. He could have been afraid of getting involved. He might have “passed by on the other side,” like some of those in the Good Samaritan story last Sunday. But instead, Abraham went out of his way to show hospitality. He seems to have recognized something special about them, some hard-to-put-your-finger-on quality. Perhaps it was holiness. Perhaps it was simply honesty. But whatever it was he saw, Abraham decided that it was worth the risk of being hospitable. And so, Abraham brings some water and lets the strangers wash up; he brings some bread, and dinner is served.

Abraham’s hospitality not only feeds strangers and makes for community. It also creates space. Henri Nouwen, in his classic little book, Reaching Out, explains that true hospitality does create space. It creates a free and friendly space for the other. Nouwen talks about the difference in visiting a friend who has every moment scheduled and planned, where the rules are firm and the expectations clear. This is very different, he notes, than visiting a friend who says, “Here is a key to my house. The refrigerator is stocked and what’s mine is yours. I hope you will feel at home.”

The way in which Abraham and Sarah receive the strangers creates space, allows for mystery and opens the way for a miracle. It is these three strangers who turn out to be angels of the Lord, with the outrageously good news that Sarah is going to bear a child.

Abraham and Sarah were able to be attentive. They were able to be absolutely attentive. They found that absolute attention is prayer, that absolute attention can allow one to see the miraculous movement of God.

In today’s Gospel, there is both attention and activity.

Martha is very active. She is busy, involved, and committed. I’ve always liked Martha. She works hard, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she makes things happen. I always pray for more Martha’s to be around in my church kitchen. But Martha also scares me a little, because I see a lot of her in myself.

Mary, on the other hand, is contemplative. She is quiet, calm, prayerful and deeply, DEEPLY attentive. She attends. She apprehends. She GETS Jesus; and all that he brings; and all that he means; and all that he promises; and all that he fulfills. It is because of this deep attention, this prayerfulness, that Mary is able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, as God Incarnate, as God Among Us. It is because of her attentiveness that Mary has (in the words of Jesus) “chosen the better part.”

While Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, notice that he in no way criticizes or scolds Martha. It’s only when Martha has become exhausted, when she is frustrated and angry and tries to get Jesus to side with her over her lazy sister that Jesus helps Martha see what she is doing. He slows her down. He asks her to breathe. “Martha,” he says, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”

This one thing that is needful might be called prayer. It might be called “the ability to see clearly, to apprehend a thing or a person for its true qualities.” It might also be called simply, “attention.”

The Church gives us moments that invite our full attention. These moments are called Sacraments. Prayer is the practice of paying attention. Holy Communion is the activity of giving attention, to God and to one another.

May the Holy Spirit slow us down and help us be attentive. May the Spirit help us, like Abraham and Sarah, to see miracles in our midst, and like Martha and Mary, to eat and drink and rest with Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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