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Devotion: Pay Attention

On Saturday, December 14, before our final Christmas Festival performance at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, Diane Fleming shared this devotion with the choir. Diane is the widow of Larry Fleming, founder of the National Lutheran Choir. She joins the choir every December to partake in the Christmas Festival as a member of the liturgical party.
 
God is near in a little child.
 
Nadia Bolz-Weber, for those not familiar with the name, is founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA mission church in Denver.  In her recent book she relates this bullet point that she learned in an adult confirmation class:  “The movement in our relationship is always from God to us.  Always.”
 
Tirelessly, He comes to get us - just as the landowner kept going out to gather more and more workers, God goes back and back and back, interrupting lives.  Tapping them on the shoulder with His grace, saying:  
Pay attention.  This is for you.  Just as you are.
 
“He is always coming near to us.  Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger.”
 
Recently, for me, that stranger was a father of four who I met at the shelter on Thanksgiving Day.  He had lost his job, his home, his wife and his children and been left with no other alternative than to live out of his car before coming to the shelter.  Yet as I listened to him tell his story, my self wallowing in a bit of self pity, I was knocked over by his declaration of hope and his faith that God was with him and would turn his life around.  
 
God coming near to me in a stranger.  Tapping me on the shoulder. 
Pay attention.
 
For Nadia, it was the newly orphaned two and five year olds whose mom had stepped out of her car on the highway.  As the student hospital chaplain, she struggled with what possible words of wisdom she could offer for uncontrollable terror of loss - or any suffering for that matter.  Anger at the unfairness of it all - even at God - would be her more natural reaction.  And when she asked the other workers in the room what exactly her job was in this place a nurse replied:  “to be aware of God’s presence in the room.”
 
God coming near to her in a stranger.  Tapping her on the shoulder. 
Pay attention.  I’m here.  With you.  With them.
 
When we carry the little child in our hearts, we make life’s pain vanish.
 
In Nadia’s own words:
 
“The choir at Matthew’s church sang that Good Friday - three days after I had sat with two small, motherless boys on a hospital floor.  I sat in the back pew and listened to the beautiful Latin and ancient melody coming from the voices of the people before me.  When the reading of the passion began - the account in John’s Gospel of the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus - I listened with changed ears.  I listened with the ears of someone who didn’t just admire and want to imitate Jesus, but had felt him present in the room where two motherless boys played on the floor.  I was stunned that Good Friday by this familiar but foreign story of Jesus’ last hours, and I realized that in Jesus, God had come to dwell with us and share our human story.  Even the parts of our human story that are the most painful.  God was not sitting in heaven looking down at Jesus’ life and death and cruelly allowing his son to suffer  God was not looking down on the cross.  God was hanging FROM the cross.  God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is.
 
The passion reading ended and suddenly I was aware that God is not distant at the cross and God is not distant in the grief of the newly motherless at the hospital;  but instead, God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as (pained) as the rest of us.  There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering.  But there is meaning.  And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus - Emmanuel - God with us.  We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”
 
Our job tonight in this building?  To be aware of God’s presence in the room.  To sing in the midst of suffering because because we are disciples and bearers of resurrection.  To sing to God amidst sorrow, pain and fears, proclaiming that death and suffering do NOT have the final word.  To defiantly say, through our worship, that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not........will not.............shall not overcome it.  And so, as the funeral mass says, even as we go to the grave, still we make our song.  Alleluia.
 
The Lord be with you.   (And also with you.)
 
Let us pray:  May we be the stranger to at least one person here tonight who is counting on us to be aware of God’s presence in the room.  To tap them on the shoulder saying:
Pay attention.  This is for you.  Just as you are.
 
God, light in the darkness, is with us.
 
Amen.
 
(Source of words in italics:  Barn och stjarnor, Hans Nyberg, arr. D. Cherwien)