Thanksgiving Week: “Attention is the beginning of devotion”

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Text for Preaching

“Gratitude” by Mary Oliver

What did you notice?

The dew-snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark;
big-chested geese, in the V of sleekest performance;
the soft toad, patient in the hot sand;
the sweet-hungry ants;
the uproar of mice in the empty house;
the tin music of the cricket’s body;
the blouse of the goldenrod.

What did you hear?

The thrush greeting the morning;
the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren,
then the deep cup of the hour of silence.

When did you admire?

The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist;
the onion, sheet after sheet, curved inward to the pale green wand;
at the end of summer the brassy dust, the almost liquid beauty of the flowers;
then the ferns, scrawned black by the frost.

What astonished you?

The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.

What would you like to see again?

My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue,
her recklessness, her loyalty, her sweetness,
her strong legs, her curled black lip, her snap.

What was most tender?

Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool;
the kinks and turns of the tupelo’s body;
the tall, blank banks of sand;
the clam, clamped down.

What was most wonderful?

The sea, and its wide shoulders;
the sea and its triangles;
the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.

What did you think was happening?

The green beast of the hummingbird;
the eye of the pond;
the wet face of the lily;
the bright, puckered knee of the broken oak;
the red tulip of the fox’s mouth;
the up-swing, the down-pour, the frayed sleeve of the first snow—

so the gods shake us from our sleep.

The Sermon, “Devotion”

What did you notice?
What did you hear?
When did you admire?
What astonished you?
What would you like to see again?
What was most tender?
What was most wonderful?
What did you think was happening?

These questions Mary Oliver asks,
then answers,
are the ones
she would urge us to ask.

She once wrote,
with advice to writers,
that attention is the beginning of devotion.
Attention is the beginning of devotion.

Devout may not be a word
that feels like something we want to wear —
often associated with people that might seem to us,
”too religious.”

But think about it:
devout just means devoted.
We are devoted to many things.
A partner or spouse, for example,
or children.

If we are devoted to someone
or something,
we pay attention to their needs.

We look and listen
and pay attention to them.
If we are devoted,
the last thing we want
is to be negligent,
so we pay attention
to their needs and wants.

If we desire to be spiritual people
then we pay attention
to the ordinary presence of God.
It is a presence
that is always at our feet and fingertips.

Normally, God is none too obvious
but if we pay attention, sometimes
we get a glimpse.

So now we are knocking on the door
of how and what thanksgiving is:
when we pay attention
to the ordinary holiness
that exists all around us
we bump into gratitude.

That is what Mary Oliver
is hitting us over the head with —
in her customarily lovely way.
Deuteronomy too, just not so lovely.

You have heard me
talk about this in Deuteronomy before.
Israel comes down
out of the wilderness
to the edge of the Promise Land.
That nomadic society
of escaped slaves
that had been wandering
in the wilderness
for forty years finally,
finally are ready to cross
the Jordan River
and emigrate into the Promise Land.

But just as they are ready,
Moses makes them all sit down.
He says, “remember,
remember who you are
whose you are
because if you forget,
you will begin to think you are self-made.”
Isn’t that so true about us?

We are quick to welcome recognition
yet easily forget about who
contributed to our success?
The list would be very long
if we stopped to name all the people
across our lifetimes
that fed the fires that fueled any success
we ever had.

Anyway, Moses yammers on and on,
hammering them not to forget.
The part we heard today
is basically an ancient “Thanksgiving Liturgy.”
Israel is told to enact it annually
so they don’t forget
where they came from
and who brought them there.

Prosperity, Moses kept warning them,
causes people to forget.
And once we forget
who we are
and whose we are,
we start doing things
that lead to self-destruction.

So that is all pretty good stuff for us
as we turn toward Thanksgiving,
and really good stuff
as we kick-off
our annual stewardship season.

I will be so bold as to say that
the act of giving to Trinity
is one of the important ways
we remember
who we are
and whose we are.
Yes, we partner
with both money and labor
to support ministries in the Finger Lakes.
Yes, we collect food
and clothing
and do what we can
to share with Geneva.
Yes, we are trying to get
Trinity Place used more and more
by the larger community.
Yes, we spent six years
and risked our reputations
and spent thousands
and thousands of dollars
to make sure the historic church building
was preserved
and remained a resource
for the city and entire region.
Yes to all of that —
and all of that is stewardship.

But this might be news to us:
creating a healing community
where it is safe to open ourselves
to the whisper of God
in the presence of one another,
is also stewardship.

All of it is stewardship.
Not just what we call outreach
but what we do
and how we do it
when we gather.
All of it
is stewardship.

Creating a place
where we hold space
even for those who are not here yet,
a place and a community
that reminds us
and over
and over again
who we are
and whose we are…
is stewardship.

So…I am going to assume
we all value the heck
out of that,
and that we want to be
as good a steward
as we possibly can
in support of Trinity.
There is no exhorting
or preaching
or persuasion needed.

Allow me then,
to share with you
a narrative
about Trinity Church Geneva.
It is the narrative
you have already helped to create
and that is being unfolded
even as we speak.

It is the narrative
that calls forward
our best possible contributions.

Here it is.

A once proud and powerful congregation
fell upon hard times,
as did many others all around it.
The building they loved
was bigger than them.
It was so big
and so hungry
and so powerful
that the congregation realized
they had to leave it or they would die with it.
As fate, or God, would have it,
they found a fairy godfather
who would restore and preserve
their beloved building
and find a way to make it pay for itself.

This allowed the little congregation
to find a new home —
one that fit better and that they could afford.

Suddenly they realized,
not quite all of a sudden but gradually,
that they had been reborn.
They still were a little congregation
but they had new people
and new opportunities
and a new mission
with a new vision.
And one of the things
they discovered along the way,
was that their smallness was a gift.
While they welcomed anyone,
and tried to bring other people in
on a regular basis,
they realized that their potent
sense of community with one another,
was itself a gift.

So they decided that no matter what else
they could do and would do,
they wanted to sustain that sense of community
because it was healing,
and it encouraging,
and it strengthening.
It was in fact, one of their core resources.

But how could they afford to go on
as a small congregation?
They had a piggy bank
but they couldn’t spend it all
and still keep going.

They could only spend a little less
than the interest it made
if they were going to be able to
keep their piggy bank full.

So they had to get stronger, financially.
They had to lean on one another
in a way they had not done
for a very long time – if ever.
They asked one another
to take a serious look
at what they were contributing to the congregation
and determine if they could give more.

They had a plan
for how to grow
but it required the little congregation
to be devoted — devoted
to making the plan work.

Being devoted meant paying attention
to whether or not
their personal financial contribution
matched their own gratitude —
gratitude for the community
and the healing
and the hope
that being with the little congregation
had given them,
both in the past and the present.

Well, that is the narrative,
and the story we tell about ourselves
truly matters.

Now here’s the deal,
straight out with no perfume on it.

2023 is a crazy big
and important nexus —
a crossroad for the community of Trinity.

So now you have something to think about
over the next few weeks
when we ask for 2023 pledges or contributions.

You will get a pledge card in the mail this week.
Don’t fill it out right away.
Don’t just write in what you did last year.

Think on it.
Think about your gratitude.
Think about your devotion.
Pay attention
to the needs and wants
of the community that cares for you,
that offers a healing circle to you,
that nurtures and challenges you,
that probably surprises you
now and again too.

Attention is the beginning of devotion,
and being devoted to Trinity
means paying attention to the needs
of the community.
We need to grow in financial strength.

Thank you in advance,
for giving it some attention.