Sermon: Paying Attention
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on January 3, 2021
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
It figures that on the night when Saturn and Jupiter were to pass closer together than they have in more than 900 years, an astrological event that was anticipated for months and said to appear like our own “Christmas Star” four days before Christmas on the longest, darkest night of the year… yes, it figures that on this night, December 21, 2020, the skies in upstate New York would actually be cloudy. Too cloudy, in fact to see much of the night sky and its stars and planets at all. In anticipation we dug out an old telescope that my granddad had given me 20 years ago and was sitting in our attic, thinking if there was ever a more appropriate time, it was for this special occasion. I can officially tell you that clouds seen through a microscope look very uninteresting. J But I also have to admit that before this astrological event got so much press and build up, my telescope was only gathering layers of dust. In fact, leading up to the event itself, I didn’t even have a clue about where in the sky to look. We are blessed here in Schoharie County to have beautiful, unpolluted night skies, but I confess that I don’t really pay that much attention to the stars and planets above me that I take for granted. If it weren’t for the media and the social media making a big deal about this planet convergence, I might have not have even known enough to be mad at the clouds that night.
This makes me wonder even more at the magi described in Matthew’s gospel this morning. In the midst of all their normal routines which I’m sure didn’t include a 24-hour news cycle telling them to keep an eye on the sky, I am impressed that they paid enough attention to the sky to notice that something was brighter one night. And not only did they notice a brighter star than normal, they actually decided to believe whole-heartedly that this bright star was a sign from God! They interpreted the light shining from this star to be a path laid out for them toward something better and brighter. What more immediate concerns did they have put aside to devote time and energy to this star? I don’t know. But not only did they pay attention to what others probably did not notice but they let their attention be held by this light in the sky and they let their faith guide them toward what could not be immediately seen but only hoped for. The star guided them on a journey that ultimately changed their life.
Some of us may have noticed the planet convergence on our own, without the hype of society. Kudos to you, my attentive friends. Others of us have to find out about a once in a millennia planet convergence on the television or by scrolling past a post about it on Facebook. Why? Because this is where we put our attention. I think a very moving subtext to our scripture today about the Magi is about how our attention is a resource, a gift. The Magi noticed the signs God was giving them because they were paying attention. These days it seems the only things we notice are shiny and bright, but not in any astrological sense. With our screens the place where more and more of our 21st century attention settles, it is not unnoticed by the tech companies. Facebook has actually monetized how much your attention is worth individually in a given year. You know how much? About $140. That boils down to approximately $.38 a day. Facebook says your attention is worth $.38 cents a day to them. And the scary thing about that is not how shockingly low that number is, but the fact that we give that attention away to them as if we value it even less. We let the brightest and most colorful screens creep into our days and before we know it these programs and machines with their endless cycle of banter and sensationalism have eaten up our hours, our well-being, our peace, and any available moments we might have had left to pay attention to rest of God’s world.
Our attention is a valuable resource. It’s a gift from God. It’s ours to use and it’s ours to squander.
I worry that if God sent a sign to me that there are some days that I would be too busy or distracted to notice.
Last year was the first year our two churches had ever passed out star words. An offering plate of craft paper stars were passed around the church and each person took one randomly. On the star was a word that was offered as a possible guide for the upcoming year. I’m sure not all of the star words were given a lot of thought or remembered throughout the year, but perhaps the word you chose did have some significance as you moved through what ended up being a precarious year. Maybe you put your star word in your wallet or taped it somewhere really visible. Maybe you don’t even remember what your word was. That’s okay. I remember that I drew out two different star word (because I lost the first). But it wasn’t until I saw a star word sitting on our kitchen counter after church that it clicked and it wasn’t even my word. It was Garrett’s, I think. The word was “awareness.” The simplicity of the project really sunk in at that moment. In a world where layers upon layers of busyness, information, and emotion pile on to us, can we isolate and focus on one thing and recognize the gift God is giving to us through one simple word? Are we spiritually capable of paying attention like those Magi were so many years ago?
This week I asked if anyone had stories about their 2020 Star Word they’d like to share. Here are three I’d like to share with you. As we listen to these, if you’d like share your 2020 star word and how it affected you, please feel free to do so in the comments.
STAR WORDS REFLECTION VIDEO (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzaUpOMcK2g)
How might God be calling you to pay attention in 2021? If you would like to receive a 2021 Star Word, follow this link: https://wheelofnames.com/view/xu3-qp9/?fbclid=IwAR1W8aikR1NsymNEZAJ2lIutnyP4rxMaTxgx2oUF7q9gtUp8PkkvfyNd6a8. It’s a website with a little wheel that you click to spin. When it stops it will give you a word that you can use as a guide as you go into 2021. Write this word down. Draw a little star around it if you want; tape it to your bathroom mirror, desk lamp or hang it on your refrigerator. Return to this word periodically and ask yourself in some quiet moments of your day that you have created (and I stress that you will need to create quiet moments... they don’t just happen), what message does God have for me today?
Star words are not magic words. They are opportunities to notice and focus on how God might be trying to get your attention. We get so easily distracted. God’s signs in our lives are hidden by clouds, some of which we’ve created ourselves. We get so use to not noticing God’s signs that we stop looking and we turn instead to the other shiny distractions.
This is a new year. A fresh start. And whatever nudge you need to clear away that cloudiness in your life that prevents you from seeing the signs God is giving, I hope you’ll take it. Maybe it’s a star word that will provide a new path by which to explore where God might be leading you, just as the Magi did so many years ago. But whether it’s through a star word or some other kind of self-imposed intermission from the other things in your life that are holding your attention hostage, I hope that you will use this fresh start to a new year to realize how precious your life is; how valuable your moments are; how gifted you have been just because you have been given attention to give. Will you save some of it for something that might just change your life?
Let us pray.
As the prophet Isaiah says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” Pay attention, or you might just miss it!