The author and pastor Frederick Buechner once wrote that he could sum up everything he had tried to communicate in his writing with these two words: “Pay attention.” Buechner wrote more than thirty books and he summed them all up with that phrase, “pay attention.” I want to invite us to pay attention, to pay attention to a few biblical texts and to God’s good creation, which even now begins to change from its many shades of green into new dresses of red and brown.
Part of paying attention it seems to me is realizing that our first impressions can be wrong. I can remember one of the summers I worked as a guide leading canoe trips. On one trip we were camped on a little-visited lake set back off the main canoe routes. It was not what you would call a beautiful lake. The trees were not particularly tall, the water was not clear. Instead of rocks or sand, the shoreline was muddy and almost impenetrably shrouded with undergrowth.
None in the group were inclined to swim. My co-leader and I were not quite sure how we would keep everyone occupied during the late afternoon. Finally, he suggested everyone should find a spot in the forest and stare at one square foot of it for ten minutes. Then we would tell each other what we noticed.
I had taken care of most of the guiding tasks and so I decided to participate. I wondered off and chose a moss-covered square of forest floor. I chose the spot simply because it was one of the few places without a tree or a bush growing on it. Those ten minutes were a revelation: I realized the ground beneath our feet has more than two dimensions. My feet sunk into it at least four inches. It had depth and texture and was laced with the tendrils of life. I realized too that there is no such thing as an unnatural color. The moss was a luminous, neon green. It was as bright as a sprinter’s sneakers.
The bugs I saw were striped and spotted, red, yellow and black. My old impression had been that the ground under our feet was just dirt. At best it was a bit like a board on which the trees and animals played their games. Paying attention, though, showed me that the one-foot square of the bottom of a boreal forest was a country unto itself. The spikes of moss were trees. The insects were engaged in running battles with lives at stake.
Paying attention isn’t boring.
Here, let me point out something about Jesus’ words in Luke 15. Don’t look so much at the content of what he says as the way he makes his point. What I’m getting at is that Jesus responds to the religious folks with parables. Parables are powerful. For one thing, they can be heard in several different ways. Jesus could have simply told the Pharisees that God cares for the sinners they despise and left it at that. He didn’t. He told a story, three stories actually, one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin and one about a lost son. His stories offered his listeners an opportunity to see themselves in a new way. This is different than just responding to a statement.
When we read these parables we can see ourselves as the lost things. This reminds us that we are objects of God’s love no matter how invaluable we might feel. Or we can see ourselves as fellow searchers, working alongside the shepherd or the woman. We participate in God’s work of reconciliation. Or, thinking back to the original context, we can realize that, like the Pharisees, we tend to think God is mostly for the people that have it together. So, yes, parables can be read in several different ways and that’s part of their power.
There is, however, another way in which a parable is powerful. For those who originally heard them Jesus’ parables connected everyday life with his message about the kingdom. We could say they were mystagogical. The parables drew listeners into the mysteries. In a little book on life in a technological society the Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz suggests we need a new mystagogy. He’s suggesting that we need to learn once again to see the mystery and beauty of everyday things. Or more specifically, we need to see the connections between everyday things and the life and theology of the church. Parables would have done that for their original audience.
After a first-century fellow heard Jesus’ story, seeing a shepherd at work would show him the mysterious work of God. Losing a coin would remind him that God takes pains for the lost. Put another way, and this is what I want to emphasize today, the fact that Jesus told parables shows us something about the relationship of creation to God. The parables show us that creation can carry the weight of God.
No, that’s too much—God is far too mysterious and expansive to be held by creation. Maybe we’d do better by saying that creation can reflect God or that creation is a window through which we can see God.
On an off day we might be tempted to say, and to really mean, that creation itself is God. That might feel like an attempt at restoring dignity to the natural world that our modern way of life has taken from it. It might feel that way. However, I’m afraid that for modern people a notion like that is really an attempt at maintaining control. If the world is God, then we don’t really have to reckon with something transcendent. Anyone who has access to weather forecasts should be skeptical of their desire to say nature is divine. For modern people that would mean we don’t have to trouble ourselves with the possibility that this beauty might point toward something beyond itself.
Yet if Jesus could tell stories about a shepherd and his sheep or about a woman and her coin and if these stories could show God to us, then there is something about the world surrounding us that we should pay attention to.
No, that’s not quite right either—creation doesn’t surround us. We are knit of creation’s fabric. We are creatures. The divine creation that allows us to see God isn’t just out there. It is you and the person sitting beside you. It is the oak tree in the park, yes, but it is also your feet that carry you all day long. The poet in Psalm 119 describes his feet as symbols of his relationship to God: “I turn my feet to your decree,” “I hold back my feet from every evil way,” and most famously, “your word is a lamp to my feet.” From the oak tree to our feet, creation reflects divine light. It is a window into the ways of God.
If paying attention requires a patient second look, what does that imply about our encounter with God’s good world?
In his letter to the Romans (8:18-25) the apostle Paul says that our frustration and our suffering are shared by the rest of creation. There is no doubt about the goodness of human beings or of nature. Peaches and apples are good. So are the kids in the nursery and elderly in the care home. Yet neither human creatures nor the rest of creation are what they could be. Paul says that creation is “subject to futility.” It groans with the labor pains of giving birth to something new. Creation pants and moans through the pain of waiting for the renewal of all things.
This means that as we look for the marks and signs of God in the world around us we must remember that not everything we see points to God. The fullness of new creation has not yet drawn breath. Our experience tells us this is true. The universal human sense of ‘ought’—that sense that some things are unjust and inappropriate—implies the existence of a standard out of reach. What’s more, we know that we are not only a part of the solution but a part of the problem.
What Paul is telling us in Romans 8 is that the rest of creation shares our experience of frustration. It is “subject to futility.” The Greek word that stands behind the idea of ‘futility’ here is the same one that the early Greek translations of the First Testament used for a word that shows up repeatedly in Ecclesiastes. It is translated into English as ‘vanity’. It’s matiotas in Greek and hebel in Hebrew. In Ecclesiastes the preacher found his life was nothing but vanity; it was empty, transitory and without purpose. So, for all the beauty we see in the world paying attention means realizing that it doesn’t fully participate in the freedom and glory God intends.
What this means is that as we observe the change in seasons. No—not ‘observe’. As we give our attention to the changing seasons we will see both that which reveals God and that which is clouding vapor. One of the pieces by Fredrick Buechner that I quite like is an essay or a sermon he wrote called “The Longing for Home.” It’s one small piece in one of those thirty books. It’s about home and our sense of distance from home.
What do you think of when I say that word—home?
For Buechner it was his grandparent’s house in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. He recalls it in rich detail. He remembers the brick patio, the library, the billiard room even the smell of apple sauce. Many of us carry similar longings for home, Buechner observes. Sometimes we have in mind an actual place and sometimes it’s a place in our dreams. Either way, home is where we belong and where we can simply be—utterly, freely, gloriously without pretension. There’s nothing wrong with that sense of longing. Even the saints described in Hebrews 11 were “seeking a homeland.” In fact it was their sense of displacement combined with their hope that made them saints.
Our hope for ourselves and for the rest of creation is spurred by the glimpses we have of the Spirit’s presence. Life in the Spirit is a predictor of things to come. It’s the first leaves turning color that signal a new season. The Spirit’s presence promises the renewal of creation. That’s not Buechner, it is Paul (II Cor. 5).
Let’s end with this: the parables show us that creation reflects God’s being and God’s ways. Yet without the acknowledgment that it groans, that we groan and that the Spirit groans on our behalf, without that, it would all be too precious. It would be Kinkadian.
Creation, when we pay attention, gives us a picture of God’s glory: “you stretch out the heavens like a tent . . . you make the clouds your chariot,” writes the poet of Psalm 114. We are the recipients of an immense gift, creation. Creation, with its beauty and manifold ways of delighting our senses. Creation, with its capacity to reflect God to us, to give us a glimpse of freedom and glory—if we pay attention.