Language is a funny thing. I’ve never been good at learning languages, but I’m fascinated by the history of words and how we come to use them. I believe that how we use certain words and phrases often reveals what matters to us.
I was reminded this week in a piece by Juliana Castro that verbs offer especially important clues to the way different cultures value and measure things.[i] In English, attention is something you pay. We talk about paying attention. In Spanish attention is something you lend. In German attention is something you gift. In Italian and French you “do” attention.
That American preference for the phrase “paying attention” has me thinking about all the ways that we have commodified attention. Everybody and everyone wants our attention, and they’re hoping that they can leverage it for a profit. You’ve probably had the experience of doing a Google search – or even just mentioning an idea near your phone – and suddenly your online space is flooded with ads related to whatever it is you were investigating.
I posted a few pictures from my national parks trip, and suddenly my timeline was full of ads for tents and backpacks and every kind of outdoor gear in the world. I want to say to the team at Facebook, “Look, just because I did glamping for a couple of days doesn’t mean that I’m going to go live in the woods now. You can stop.” But they’re hoping that I’ll pay attention – and that I will pay these advertisers for what they’re selling.
Notice how people pay attention in today’s gospel. Because that attention says a lot about the world of power that Herod occupies, a world in which everything has a price.
Herod is having a birthday bash. So he wants people to pay attention to him. He’s invited the courtiers and officers and leaders of Galilee because of course those are the people whose attention is most valuable.
They’re all paying attention to a young woman dancing, Herod’s niece turned stepdaughter. It’s a tangled family tree. Herod has essentially stolen his brother’s wife Herodias. John the Baptist had been calling attention to that move in a way that no one cared for, least of all Herodias herself.
Herodias, meanwhile, is paying attention to the politics of that party, looking for an opportunity to get her revenge against John the Baptist.
The young woman, who delights everyone with her dancing, doesn’t know what to do when Herod tells her she can have anything she wants, even half his kingdom. This game is out of her league. She’s been taught how to be the object of everyone’s attention. She has not been taught how to be the subject of her own life. She runs to her mother for advice.
The girl brings back the request prompted by her mother – the head of John the Baptist on a platter. That demand certainly gets Herod’s attention, and for reasons that are somehow related to keeping his word, Herod dispatches his soldiers to behead John.
This world is one in which everything can be bought or bartered, sold or stolen. Herod can take the wife that he wants. The men can make girl dance for their entertainment. Herodias can ask for a man’s head on a platter. It’s a stark and violent reminder that in this kind of world, whatever happens always comes at a cost to someone. In this case John pays the price for telling the truth about right and wrong.
This is how John dies. John, the one who told people to prepare the way of the Lord for Jesus, the one who baptized Jesus, the one who lived completely as himself. He dies because people gave their attention to the wrong things and didn’t want to be called out on it.
Jesus doesn’t play much of a role in this story. I added a few verses, though, borrowing the beginning of next week’s gospel because I wanted us to notice how the attention of Jesus and his followers works differently than that of Herod and his circle.
Notice that the disciples do not look away from the violence and the horror of their friend John’s death.[ii] They show up to claim the body. They make sure that John receives a proper burial, even as their hearts must be breaking to realize what can happen when you give your attention to doing what is right.
The piece that I read about language this week also reminded me that attention and tenderness share a root, the Latin word tendere, which means to stretch or to tense.[iii] It provides the root word for the ways that we say that we care, that we try, that we are exposed to being hurt. What makes us tender also makes us vulnerable.
After some of the disciples tend to John’s body, Jesus then tends to his disciples. And h does so with tenderness. He calls them away to a deserted place to get some rest. Jesus gives them attention, not to impress them or exploit them or make sure they owe him one. He tends to their needs because he loves them.
And though they encounter a large crowd that gets in the way of their plan to rest, Jesus also shows tenderness towards the people who have gathered. He has compassion for them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.
We’ll hear in a couple of weeks that familiar story of Jesus feeding the thousands. For now it is enough to remember that the way Jesus throws a dinner party is so much different than the way Herod does things.
This is the most fundamental way in which Jesus is a threat to the world that Herod leads. Herod pays attention only to what will serve his own interests. Jesus gives his attention to those from whom others turn away. The sick, the lost, the struggling, the worried, the anxious, the fearful.
What we give our attention to is an expression of our faith. If you were to do an audit of who or what gets your attention on any given day, what might it reveal? There would be some days that I wouldn’t be proud of. On those days my attention is claimed disproportionately by things that are ultimately not important: by my phone, by the anxious stories that take up space in my head, by the distractions that don’t deserve my time. The days I feel the most satisfied are the ones on which I’ve been able to give my attention to what I love most – the best parts of ministry, my friends and family, a good book, prayer and reflection, a chance to be with people and hear their stories.
As Christians we’re almost always better able to give our attention to what matters when we remember what Jesus has given first to us – not only his tender attention, but his very life. When our attention gets fixated on death or despair, Jesus transforms that death and despair into life and hope.
This week I hope that you won’t just pay attention. I hope you will give your attention. Give your attention to someone who needs it from you the most, without distraction and without expectation for repayment.
And I pray that you will receive the gift of someone else’s attention – with a holy tenderness that will nourish your soul. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] See endnote 1.
June 13, 2021
My niece Camryn just finished the third grade. She loves animals. And she loves fun facts. So I sent her a book of fun facts about animals as a gift to celebrate the end of a crazy school year. She loved it and read most of the fun facts out loud to her family. Did you know, for example, that it is physically impossible for pigs to look up into the sky? Or that sea otters hold hands when they sleep in the water so they don’t float away from each other? Camryn was especially delighted to learn that sloths climb down to the ground once a week…to poop. And so now I’ve met the challenge issued by my 13-year-old niece, who dared me to mention sloth poop in a sermon.
These facts are fun, but the book also reminded me of how much we just don’t know. I don’t claim a vast knowledge of sea otters or sloths, but I know some things. And yet almost every fact in that book was a surprise. Many of them challenged my assumptions about those creatures – and made me realize once again what a clever Creator God is.
The little stories that Jesus tells in today’s gospel – these word pictures that we call “parables” – when you look closely, they challenge our assumptions as well.
We assume, for example, that we need to be in control. We need a plan. We need to manage the details of that plan, and we need to have a plan B and a plan C in case something goes wrong with plan A. I’m not saying that being prepared is a bad thing. But we all know that there’s a tipping point from careful planning to micromanaging. There’s a part of each of us that really wants to control not just the process or the planning, but the outcomes. If I do x, then y will happen. That’s how it’s supposed to work. If I sign up my kids for all the right programs, they will get into a good college. If I make all the right choices about what to eat, I will never get sick. If I take care of every need that my family has at every hour of every day, then nothing bad will happen. But that’s not how it works.
Then Jesus comes along and tells a story about a farmer who scatters seed and then…takes a nap? It sounds like the farmer basically throws some seed around and then does little else besides going to sleep and waking up and living his life. But that doesn’t keep the seed from growing. I’m guessing not all of them made it, but many of those seeds break open beneath the earth and find their way to the surface and unfurl themselves to soak up the sun and grow deep roots to drink up the rain. The farmer doesn’t do any of that – the seed does. And when the time comes, there’s plenty to harvest.
I don’t like this little parable. I want to know that effort is rewarded and that laziness has consequences. I want the story to say that if the farmer carefully places each seed in organically fertilized soil, then that seed will grow. I want it to say that if the farmer pulls every weed with his bare hands and waters the soil every single day, then the plants will prosper. I want the farmer to do something other than go to bed and wake up. Or, if that’s all he does, I want the seeds not to grow – just to prove a point. It doesn’t make sense that they grow. Jesus challenges our assumptions that we have to be in control of everything – or that it is even possible. Growth can surprise us by how it happens and where it happens.
Just when I’ve gotten myself pretty worked up about that first parable, Jesus tells another one, and it challenges my assumptions too. This time Jesus points us to the mustard seed, this smallest of seeds. I’d look at something that small and think, “What in the world could that become?” Even as it started growing, I might think, “That’s not a very attractive plant.” I might even start making plans to uproot it and get it away from the prettier plants. But then Jesus reminds us that this little tiny mustard seed eventually grows into something that spreads out its branches so that the birds can nest there. It provides shade and shelter in the best of ways. So much for my assumptions…yet again.
Both stories, Jesus tells us, are supposed to reveal something about the kingdom of God. In the end I think these stories reveal how little we understand the kingdom of God. God’s plans and purposes defy our expectations at every turn.
The kingdom of God is like this. It grows in ways we didn’t plan, uproots our assumptions, shows us how the things (or the people) we dismiss can surprise us. God’s imagination is far bigger than our own.
Yesterday I participated in an online experience called America Talks. I signed up for it a few weeks ago at the recommendation of a friend. I had to answer some questions about my background and my political beliefs ahead of time, and then yesterday afternoon, after a brief orientation, I was paired up with someone who does not share many of my beliefs for an hour-long, one-on-one, face-to-face online conversation. I’ll be honest. I was pretty nervous. I enjoy talking to strangers, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to do that, and this kind of conversation seemed like it could go off the rails pretty easily.
My conversation partner was Phil, a 62-year-old grandfather and former Marine who lives in Michigan. Thanks to some helpful guidelines, the conversation was structured so that we could get to know each other better, we could talk honestly about our differences, and we could hopefully find some common ground. We were encouraged to listen with curiosity, to speak from our own experiences, and to connect with respect. In other words, to set aside our assumptions about the other person and try learning instead of judging.
We had a great conversation. By the end Phil and I had named a common goal and had identified the ways that we would each keep working toward that goal. We found that we share a commitment to supporting young people and providing every kid with a quality education. We talked about the importance of making sure that all children have good, safe, healthy lives, no matter where they live. We differed on a lot of things, and we would probably disagree on the policies that might lead to our shared goal, but we agreed about a lot more than I would have predicted.
About 1000 people participated yesterday. I realize that 500 conversations are not going to transform our country tomorrow. But I keep thinking that each small conversation as a kind of mustard seed. Even though I can’t control the outcomes or conditions of this experiment, maybe things will grow from those small conversations and connections that we never imagined. I don’t have to know what will happen to trust that God can make something beautiful and useful out of it. I just have to let go of my assumptions and try. I have to trust God’s imagination.
In the end, Jesus himself embodies the ultimate challenge to our assumptions. If you’d asked a first-century Jewish person to describe what the messiah was supposed to look like, that person would not have described an itinerant preacher born into relative poverty. And yet that’s how Jesus shows up – defying all expectations by taking on flesh and blood and becoming one of us. Then he kept showing up in the places no one expected, among the people no one else respected – the tax collectors and the lepers and the bleeding women and the beggars. And isn’t resurrection the ultimate challenge to our assumptions? We assume that dead people stay dead. And yet that’s when Jesus shows up again, promising a victory over death that is beyond our imagination.
I hope we will look for those mustard seed possibilities that God puts before us, as God challenges us to release our assumptions and to be open to something unexpected. We don’t have to be in control. We are not in control. But we are part of a holy community that God has called together and that God promises to use for holy purposes.
Maybe the sea otters can teach us something – like how to hold on to each other so that we don’t drift apart. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ