Scripture | Psalm 104:24-33 | Matthew 6:22-33
Poem | The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
This is all John Weigand’s fault – this sermon, and this whole service. He’s the one who had the idea of having the Sunday morning discussion group spend time this summer with a book of poetry. The very first poem in the book happens to be Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, which is one of my favorites.
In the introduction to the collection of poems one of the editors describes how they picked the poems to include. She writes,
[These] poets eagerly and memorably find meaning in the commonplace.
The commonplace is also where we find God… “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins….
Finding God by paying attention is the theme of [the book of poetry].
[Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul, ed. Judith Valente and Charles Reynard, Chicago: Loyola Press, 2006, xvi-xvii]
As Mary Oliver writes,
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention.”
Hearing that makes me half-feel like we should skip the sermon this morning and just go outside for fifteen minutes, find something to notice, and really, really pay attention. Then we’d come back, say a prayer, take the offering, and go down to fellowship and tell each other about what we saw. Maybe paying attention would be our prayer. Maybe telling each other would be blessing enough.
“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field.” I’ve always taken that passage to mean, “God takes care of all God’s creatures, why wouldn’t God take care of you?” And I think Jesus does mean exactly that.
But this time I found myself taking it more literally… What would happen if I looked at the birds, considered the flowers, and then thought about my own life’s concerns? It’s as if Jesus were saying,
“Don’t worry about your own life first; don’t kill yourself trying to get everything straightened out before you start seeing the world around you. First of all, you’ll never have everything finished, so just give up that illusion. But here’s the real problem: if you start with worrying, you won’t even see your life clearly. If you’re caught in the anxiety you won’t even know your own life for what it is.
“The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus said. “So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” What is your eye looking at? Where are you focused?
What would happen if we really paid attention, I mean in the way Mary Oliver describes? Enough to see something in its exquisite detail?
What changes in us when we do?
Last summer a friend sent me a book called, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It’s an unlikely title, I know… it’s a memoir of a woman named Elisabeth Tova Bailey. She talks about a season in her life she spent bedridden from a debilitating illness. For a while she could barely get out of bed and needed round the clock care. She had to move away from her beloved farmhouse and her friends to get the care she needed. Her world became very, very small – just the same four walls all around her, day after day after day. There were windows that looked out on a lovely view, but she “felt trapped inside a stark white box.” 
Until a friend brought her a present: a little snail she found, with a wild violet plant she had dug up and put in a pot.
Elisabeth Bailey spent the summer paying close attention to that snail. Her friends came infrequently, and when they did they didn’t stay long, and besides, it was exhausting. The snail was her constant companion. She studied it. She researched snails. And she simply paid attention.
Each evening the snail awoke, and with astonishing poise, it moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying, once again, the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstances with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.
As I prepared for the night, the snail moved in its leisurely way down the side of the pot to the dish beneath. It found the flower blossoms I had placed there and began its breakfast. [Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, 15-16]
It’s not a life you would wish on anyone, being bed-bound like that. And yet her singular focus became like a lifeline, a blessing, a prayer. A connection, the deepest, most unexpected connection, to life.
While I was working on this sermon this week I happened to see a Washington Post article that described a very different kind of life; almost its polar opposite. It was about a young teen, a 13-year-old girl named Katherine Pommerening. She’s young, healthy, active, and out in the world every day. The reporter, Jessica Contrera, was exploring what it’s like to be 13 these days, in the screen age. This is how the article begins:
She slides into the car, and even before she buckles her seat belt, her phone is alight in her hands. A 13-year-old girl after a day of eighth grade.
She says hello. Her [sitter] asks, “Ready to go?”
She doesn’t respond, her thumb on Instagram. A Barbara Walters meme is on the screen. She scrolls, and another meme appears. Then another meme, and she closes the app. She opens BuzzFeed. There’s a story about Florida Gov. Rick Scott, which she scrolls past to get to a story about Janet Jackson, then “28 Things You’ll Understand If You’re Both British and American.” She closes it. She opens Instagram. She opens the NBA app. She shuts the screen off. She turns it back on. She opens Spotify. Opens Fitbit. She has 7,427 steps. Opens Instagram again. Opens Snapchat. She watches a sparkly rainbow flow from her friend’s mouth. She watches a YouTube star make pouty faces at the camera. She watches a tutorial on nail art. She feels the bump of the driveway and looks up. They’re home. Twelve minutes have passed.
[Jessica Contrera, “13, right now: This is what it’s like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing,” The Washington Post, May 25, 2016.]
It’s not her whole life, of course; she thrives at school, is beloved by her teachers, has starred in the Middle School musical and loves basketball. She’s a well-rounded, active kid. But in her down-time, her phone is where she often lives.
There are reasons for this way of life; there is a certain satisfaction, a kind of connectedness many of us will never understand because we didn’t grow up with it. There’s an addictive quality to it, too, because there’s always something more you might be missing, a whole universe to stay on top of. It’s different than just flipping channels on the television like I did at that age. That screen is more than a screen. It’s relationships, status, a whole social universe to navigate and master. It’s more than information, it’s formation, No wonder Katherine is paying close attention, but can’t pay attention to anything for long.
And no wonder parents feel lost, locked out of their kids’ own lives, while the debates rage about when it’s OK to give your child a smartphone.
And I suppose it’s only fair to mention that I read that article on my phone while I was scrolling through Facebook, checking email, and messaging three different people, which are the things my generation does.
In a world like that, how do we learn how to notice things? To linger over anything? To pay attention, deeply, to the world God made and loves?
There’s something about that, about being in the space of God’s creation that gets us out of our own heads, which frankly can be very scary places.
There’s something about being in touch with something beautiful in nature, something greater than ourselves and our own worries.
There’s something about lingering that calms us down, that brings us to a place where we can breathe more deeply, and feel more grounded, and notice, simply notice, what is good and right and beautiful.
It’s like we’re re-training our mind’s eye to see, really see, with eyes full of light.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” Mary Oliver writes,
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
What would happen if we could be like that, even for a few minutes each day? Or a whole day, a whole long, luxurious, empty, wonderful day? Can you imagine being idle, and blessed?
This life of yours; it’s not a question of careers, or goals, or bucket lists.
It’s a question of how you will live.
“Tell me, what else should I have done?” she asks.
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church, Granville, OH