Attention to Detail
Based on Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 19:28-40
I read this week an article from Time magazine from 2015 which noted that before the digital revolution of 2000, humans had an average attention span of 12 seconds…12! In the intervening 15 years, researchers found that humans now have an average attention span of just 8 seconds. With COVID brains I suspect that number has dropped down even a bit more. Those same researchers noted that goldfish have an attention span of 9 seconds…humbling, isn’t it?! Truthfully, there is so much information coming at us from so many directions now that it is literally impossible to pay attention to it all. In fact, author Tim Wu, in a book entitled, “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Your Heads” writes, “…We ignore so much stuff for a simple reason: if we didn’t, we’d quickly be overwhelmed, our brains flooded until they seized up. Depending on the kind of information, it takes our brains some amount of time to process it, and when we are presented with too much at once we begin to panic, like a waiter who has too many orders shouted at him at once. But our capacity to ignore is limited by another fact: we are always paying attention to something. If we think of attention as a resource, or even a kind of currency, we must allow that it is always, necessarily, being ‘spent.’
There is no saving it for later. The question is always, to what shall I pay attention? Our brains answer this question with varying degrees of volition, from ‘shhh—I’m reading this’ to letting our minds wander in the direction of whatever might draw it in, whether in the corner of our screen or along some road we are walking….”
Our scripture readings for this Palm Sunday are trying desperately to have us pay attention to the details of what Jesus is doing to fulfill the prophecy about the Messiah. The “Servant Song” from the prophet Isaiah, who speaks for God after listening intently to God’s teachings. Likewise, the Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Philippi about how they should pay attention to the details of how the mind of the Christ operated in our world. Finally, Jesus himself, shows us how he focused on the details of his entry into Jerusalem so that he could fulfill what had been written about the coming of the Messiah. Before we go farther, let us turn our attention to God in prayer, asking for God’s help to attend to the important details of our lives together…
The reading from Philippians contains one of the earliest hymns of our faith. The Apostle Paul is writing to the believers about how they should conform themselves. He tells them to take on the mind of Jesus and do the things that he did. Paul says, pay attention to the details of how a divine entity emptied himself of all that he should have had at his disposal. Jesus allowed himself to become a slave and to die a horrible death through crucifixion in order that we might be able to know salvation. The key detail of finding salvation on earth is growing into the mind of Jesus.
The prophet Isaiah’s words echo down the ages and reinforce what Paul told the believers in Philippi. The details of the “suffering servant song” are something to which we need to be mindful. Though we are persecuted and reviled for our belief in God, we must confront our adversaries knowing that God helps us. No matter what we suffer on account of our faith, if we listen to God and teach about God well enough “to sustain the weary with a word”, then no matter what evil is done to us – we will not be disgraced. After all, with our attention to the details that God provides, who can declare us guilty of anything?
Jesus arrives at the outskirts of Jerusalem before the Passover celebration. Jesus gives detailed instructions to two of his disciples about exactly what kind of animal they are to bring, how to find it, and what to say if someone gives them flak about taking the animal. It is important that scripture be fulfilled in this way so that people who are reviewing the events (like us and all who came before and will come after) see the hand of God in everything that happens. Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey colt that had never been ridden is indeed a humble way to lead. Some people understand what is happening and they throw down cloaks and branches and begin to shout and sing psalms and praises. They make such a fuss that the Pharisees are worried that the Romans will notice. Jesus tells them that all of creation is announcing the coming of the Messiah and that they have every reason to be joyful.
Attention to the details of our faith and our faith development has always been important for the Church. In the early Church, people wanting to join the movement had to undergo three years of training before they were baptized into the faith. The Church was the main game in every town, and becoming a knowledgeable member was seen as the goal of most believers. Tim Wu continues with his writings about our need for attention to detail. He writes, “…The Church was the one institution whose mission depended on galvanizing attention; and through its daily and weekly offices, as well as its sometimes-central role in education, that is exactly what it managed to do. At the dawn of the attention industries, then, religion was still, in a very real sense, the incumbent operation, the only large-scale human endeavor designed to capture attention and use it. But over the twentieth century, organized religion, which had weathered the doubts raised by the Enlightenment, would prove vulnerable to other claims on and uses for attention.
Despite the promise of eternal life, faith in the West declined and has continued to do so, never faster than in the twenty-first century. Offering new consolations and strange gods of their own, the commercial rivals for human attention must surely figure into this decline. Attention, after all, is ultimately a zero-sum game….”
Paying attention to the details of our faith is in fact a zero-sum game. In order to pay attention to the details, we need to turn our minds and ears to God for instruction. We need to attend worship routinely, engage in sacraments, read scripture and other spiritual writings, study the Bible and other helpful trainings, engage ourselves in sincere prayer and after all that – we need to put our faith into action working with God to heal the world. To do this, however, we need to give up on other things that seek our attention and provide us with details to distract and mislead us.
The Church has always provided training and consistent messaging to her people. Those churches that follow a liturgical calendar as we do, see the coming of each season, hear the stories of our faith, sing the hymns and read aloud the psalms. The idea is that if we do this often enough, with a mind focused on attending to the details of what is happening, then we will be prepared for the second coming of the Christ – like those believers were on the first Palm Sunday so long ago. Being properly prepared maximizes the potential for us to be awake and alert and to not miss the coming of the Messiah.
To make the point perfectly clear about how our weekly liturgy and spiritual training help us keep our attention to the most important details of our faith, pastor and spiritual writer Craig Barnes, gives us this thought: “…The singing of psalms was a liturgical act repeated at every Passover and feast day. Every time the people worshiped, they worked through those psalms. Year after year, week after week, day after day they paid attention to the details of looking for a savior. And when the Savior came, some were ready. We know the details of Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter. We’ve gone through them year after year. Why do this again? For the same reason that we go through the (same liturgical) details every Sunday. It’s the only way we can take our eyes off the things that do not matter and set them upon the arrival of the Savior. The best news is that once we’ve learned to look for Jesus, we’ll find him in every detail of life….”
Palm Sunday begins our Holy Week liturgy. It brings us up against the reality that only a few people ever recognize Jesus for who he really is. It brings us up against the reality that our spiritual ancestors who didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah ultimately killed him. It brings us up against our need to spend time attending to the details of the joy Palm Sunday and looming darkness of Holy Week, the emotion and resolve of Maundy Thursday, the horror and seeming triumph of evil on Good Friday, before we can realize the great good news of Easter Sunday. Attention to all these details will help us look for Jesus so that we recognize him in every moment of our lives. Alleluia and Amen!