Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
My sermon title today is borrowed from Glennon Doyle. She uses the phrase “praying attention” to mean showing up, being still, and simply bearing witness to life’s important moments and God’s presence in those moments. As in: sometimes there’s nothing else we can do, other than to be there for someone, and to “pray attention.” I love that.
But I confess I’ve also been challenged recently to think about what that same phrase – “praying attention” - might mean in contexts where something more is called for than simply being still in the presence of God. In what ways could “praying attention” be something more along the lines of a wake-up call, or even an invitation to action?
Certainly biblical prophets were big on offering wake-up calls from God. As some of you may remember from our sermon series on the prophet Amos a year or so ago, Amos was appalled by the injustices of his day, and proclaimed a strong message of divine judgment against the nation of Israel. It’s in that context that Amos speaks for God, in the verses we heard this morning, saying: enough already with your pious religious celebrations, you bunch of hypocrites! I want none of it! It won’t surprise you to hear that Amos wasn’t a popular guy. Calling people on the carpet for their hypocrisy generally doesn’t win you many friends, and Amos’ contemporaries responded about the way you’d expect – by trying to run him out of town.
But here’s the thing: the kingdom of Israel in Amos’ day needed a voice like his to be lifted in protest. There was a vast gulf between rich and poor in 8th century BC Israel, and the poor were being trampled on – pushed aside, taken advantage of – precisely by those who regularly brought sacrifices to the temple in an attempt to appear righteous before God. This was religious hypocrisy of the highest order, and someone needed to bring a wake-up call from God into this setting. Amos was the man God appointed for the job, sending him to bring harsh words about falseness in worship, and an urgent call to justice and righteousness.
In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Amos of his era. Just as Amos addressed Israelites who offered empty sacrifices to God, then went out and oppressed the poor, Dr. King challenged white Christians who attended church every Sunday, then went out and oppressed the African-American people who lived among them. If you replace the Israelite’s festivals and solemn assemblies with church sanctuaries and fellowship halls, the burnt and grain offerings with money collected in the offering plates, and the melody of the harps with that of piano or organ, you would end up with a picture remarkably similar to far too many white congregations in Dr. King’s day. It’s not for nothing that King incorporated a verse from Amos into one of his most famous speeches. In fact, it may have been in his “I Have a Dream” speech that you first encountered the Old Testament prophet’s call to “let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
I’m reminded on this Martin Luther King weekend that one whole category of “praying attention” in 2018 simply has to involve noticing the racism, racial violence, and racial injustice in our country right now. Like me, you may wonder how it’s even possible that this many years after the Civil Rights Movement we seem to have been moving dramatically backward rather than forward as a nation in these areas. And that was even before this week’s racist comments from the White House about our brothers and sisters in Haiti and Africa. Heaven help us all! We believe – as we read in Genesis this morning – that human beings are created in the image of God, which means that every one of us has equal value and worth in God’s eyes. Yet how far, how tragically far we continue to fall short, as a society, violating the image of God in one another in countless, deeply destructive ways.
Granted, we sit here this morning in a little pocket of Seattle where it’s fairly easy to go about our daily lives without thinking about race much at all. But it’s also not hard to figure out why that is, or to realize that people who don’t look like most of us in this room don’t have that luxury. I was glad to have a chance to read a book recently called “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” by Debby Irving. It would make for a terrific book group discussion at church sometime this year. I confess I’ve hesitated to hold discussions about racism here simply because so many of us are white. It feels like we’d be missing important conversation partners, because of course we would be. On the other hand, as the author of this book reminds us, it’s also profoundly unfair that the burden of addressing racial injustice isn’t shared, simply because those of us who happen to have been born with lighter skin aren’t as directly impacted by that injustice. I know I need to engage more in this area. And I want that engagement to infuse my prayer life as well. I want to start not only paying more attention but also “praying [more] attention” - both to my own white privilege, and to the subtle and not so subtle ways racial prejudice has taken root in our society.
Moving beyond waking up to racism, there are easily as many other ways for us to “pray attention” as there are people in this room. Certainly far more ways than we could possibly delve into in a single sermon. So I’ll just share one more personal example this morning, and then an example from our congregation’s worship life.
First, speaking personally… Hopefully it’s clear enough that I love spending time with Presbyterian Christians – after all, I’ve made this my life’s work - but this also means I have spent the vast percentage of my adult life surrounded by my own kind, if you will. So it’s been a real gift to be invited to join an interfaith clergywomen’s group this year. It’s high time my circle of friends and ministry colleagues included Jewish rabbis, and Catholic women and Muslim women who are leaders in their faith communities, as well as pastors from different racial & ethnic groups who represent a variety of other Christian traditions. We’ve only met a couple of times and already I find I’m “praying attention” in new ways. Just as one small example, I’m realizing that I’ve gotten to prepare for worship each week of my career, aware in only the most basic ways of the latest act of racial violence or anti-Semitic aggression, for instance, or the latest example of someone confusing devout, peace-loving, law-abiding Muslim Americans with terrorists. It is both humbling and heartbreaking to sit in a room full of colleagues and realize how few of them have that same luxury. While to a large extent I get to decide which events in the news draw my focus in a given week; some of my new friends don’t have that choice.
In some ways, it’s a similar type of “praying attention” we’ve been encouraging with our world prayer emphasis on communion Sundays here at church. On any given Sunday, we have all kinds of concerns on our hearts when we arrive for worship, for family members and friends, work colleagues and neighbors facing difficult circumstances. We’d never want to neglect them in our prayers. But it’s easy to stop there, isn’t it? It’s easy to limit our focus in prayer to people in our own immediate social circles. I keep feeling this nudge from God to look farther outside of ourselves. To remember people in other parts of our city and our world whose struggles and celebrations are no less important than our own. How might we “pray attention” to them? Incidentally, this is how the globe came to live on our communion table here about a year ago – it’s simply intended as a visual reminder that God has the whole world in his hands. And this is why most communion Sundays now have us broadening our prayers to include God’s children in other places.
The good news is the more we learn, outside ourselves, the more we expand our circle of attention, the more others’ concerns naturally become our concerns. So that when we hear a news story we won’t just be thinking in an abstract way about this or that war, this or that group of immigrants or refugees, this or that “-ism,” we’ll be holding in our hearts people we genuinely care about.
Because “praying attention” necessitates first paying attention like this, I’m trying to learn more this year about what life is like for children of God whose experiences are different from my own. I’m trying to read more widely, and trying to listen for God’s voice reaching out to me in new ways, through new faces and new stories. I welcome you to join me in that journey, whether it be through something like a book study, or an open house visit at a local mosque, by helping us brainstorm about ways to expand our focus in prayer this year to include more of the world, or perhaps through another new initiative entirely that you’d like to propose for us as a church family.
Granted, “praying attention” will require us to step outside our comfort zones. It’s likely to require effort, time, perhaps even courage. But surely it’s well worth doing. I hope you’ll share with me where God’s Spirit is inviting you to “pray attention” this year.
 Glennon Doyle, “Why You Should Never Underestimate the Importance of Just Showing Up” in Oprah Magazine.