“Paying Attention”

February 27, 2022

Luke 9:28–36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. ***

One winter Friday before 8 a.m. a man emerged from the DC metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash receptacle. He was nondescript: a younger white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Positioning the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars as seed, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed pieces spanning from Bach to Schubert, 1,100 people passed by. While he played only seven people stopped to listen. About twenty people gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. One woman stopped because she knew him. He collected $32.17.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar in an urban setting where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, annoyed by the unsolicited demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a dollar to be polite? Does your decision change if the musician is lousy? What if he is really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What is the moral mathematics of the moment?

That morning those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing near the Metro escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, Joshua Bell and he was playing one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Think about how you pay attention to life around you. What commonly gets your attention?

Paying attention is a worthy practice for those seeking a greater awareness of God in this life. The practice of paying attention makes room for beauty, reverence, and the grace of God, too.

Somewhere along the path of life we learn how to move fast. We move quickly and often our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we hurry past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the clock, the smartphone, the list of things to do. Meanwhile, that which provides spiritual goodness remains unnoticed, lost in the movement.

Today’s reading from Luke 9 has dramatic themes of paying attention. Sometimes it takes something out of the ordinary to get people’s attention. That is part of what is going on in this passage.

Jesus takes his disciple Peter, James, and John up a mountain, and there, Jesus changes. His clothing becomes white with a brightness that is not of this earth. Two other figures appear — Moses the lawgiver and the prophet Elijah. Do not ask me how the disciples can tell who they are. They just know. Then God speaks: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

This spectacle is supposed to grab the disciples’ attention — and ours. Luke uses the dramatic as a way of waking us to the deepest reality about Jesus. The story invites us to pay attention to and be open to the marvel of the divine — watching and listening for God’s actions and God’s presence close to us, right here in the world.

Yet, this story could be relegated to the supernatural. We know sci-fi and stranger than fiction movies and literature. The strange and miraculous is sometimes entertaining, but it is always unreal. Yet, Luke and two other gospel writers tell this supernatural story. But something can be supernatural — that is holy and of God — and yet, commonplace in our ordinary lives.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and author writes, “Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish — separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[1]

Many people believe God is everywhere. We teach this to young children and it is fundamental to our faith, to most faiths, for that matter. I recall a teacher from years ago saying, “If you can’t find God in this place” — in this difficult situation, or in this destroyed city, or here in the midst of violence and hate — “you will not find God anyplace.” God is everywhere and there is no place God is not.

Now, if we pause to think that God is everywhere, it has huge implications. For starters, it means, as Taylor writes, that, “People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order. They can learn as much from a wildflower as they can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.” She continues: “The House of God stretches from one corner of the universe to the other. Sea monsters and ostriches live in it, along with people who pray in languages I do not speak, whose names I will never know.”[2]

This means that God just might show up at work, at school, at the grocery store, at the gym, at an AA meeting, in a hospital room, in the nightly news, in our own struggles, in a movie, a song, or a conversation. God might show up in Ukraine, Myanmar, Yemen, Mumbai, Washington, D.C., and in snow covered northern Wisconsin’s woods.

The question is: Are we paying attention? Do we notice? And are we transformed?

Sometimes we have no choice but to pay attention. The Transfiguration Luke describes could not be ignored by the disciples the way Ebenezer Scrooge dismissed his ghostly visitors as indigestion in “A Christmas Carol.”

Somehow the disciples were open and ready to see. Might it be possible that all of us have, ready and at hand, places that shimmer with grace, alerting us to the possibility that God is at work doing something we could not have predicted — if only we pay attention? That God is ready to speak to us and in particular, ready to transfigure or transform us, and our world?

Paying attention is a practice. It takes practice. There is a reason that Transfiguration Sunday is always the Sunday before Lent. In the early days of the church, Lent was the time when new converts prepared to be baptized at Easter. The more seasoned Christians also used Lent to reflect on whether they were living into their transfigured identity — increasingly the person God created them to be, and more Christ-like. Lent has become a time to focus with new energy on the process of transfiguration that takes place over the lifetime of a person of faith. It is a time when people focus on their spiritual life — although spiritual life is actually our whole lives. As someone said, “God is not interested in your ‘spiritual life.’ God is just interested in your life.”[3]

How do we begin this practice? Here is one starting place: Make it a practice to remember that each person, each encounter, each conversation has an element of the sacred.

Barbara Brown Taylor says it is easy to see the people around us as obstacles, but the remedy is to pay attention to them, even when they are in the way. She writes, “Just for a moment, I look for a human being instead of an obstacle. That teenage employee who is crushing my portabellas does not know the first thing about mushrooms. He is, what, sixteen years old? His fingernails are bitten to the quick. He is working so hard to impress the pretty young cashier that it is no wonder he does not see me. But I see him, and for just a moment he is more than a bag boy. He is a kid with his own demons, his own … budding lusts. I do not want too much information about any of this but I can at least let him be more than a bit player in my drama. I pay attention to him, and the fist in my chest lets go.” Taylor says to the boy, “Take it easy on the mushrooms, okay?” He cocks his head and grins. “These things are mushrooms?” he says, hauling them out of the bottom of the bag. “I wouldn’t eat one of those on a bet.”

A variation on this practice, she says, is riding on the subway and studying people from behind her sunglasses: the girl with the fussy baby, the guy with the house paint all over his jeans, the couple holding hands. “Every one of these people is dealing with something, the same way I am,” she writes. “Sometimes I say the Lord’s Prayer under my breath while I look from one to the next, but this is optional. Paying attention to them has already shifted my equilibrium.” [4]

In other words, paying attention to them has already changed her. Transformed her. Transfigured her.

Paying attention can be annoying. God does not speak to us only through faces on the subway or falling stars, but also through things that are hard for us to see, hard to hear; things we would much rather ignore or even disbelieve.

But Jesus reminds us in this supernatural story that by going back down the mountain there is a mission. The mountain top encounter with God is not aimed to better attend to God, but in order that may live out its meaning in action for the world. All revelation is a calling and a mission.

Peter wanted to stay up top. He wanted to enjoy the glory. Anybody would. But Jesus returned to the world, to his life and ministry, and the first thing he does is heal a boy.

We pay attention in order to encounter God. We encounter God to be transformed. We are transformed in order to transform God’s world with love. Truth be told, the practice of paying attention is harder than giving up chocolate or Diet Coke for Lent.

But the end, my friends, is always Easter. The end is new life.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 15.

[2] Taylor, 13.

[3] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 17.

[4] Taylor, 27–28.

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Kurt Jacobson

Kurt Jacobson

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Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.