This past week, Diane and I went to Amish Country with her sister, Jean, and Jean’s boyfriend, Dave. As I was driving to Walnut Creek from Sugarcreek, I suddenly saw an explosion of dust in the middle of Route 39. Then I saw a car spin out of the dust and stop on the side of the road.
I tossed my cellphone to Diane and told her to call 9-1-1, then started to pull off onto the berm so I could run over and help – in case my 37-year-old EMT skills were needed. I was looking at the accident scene to assess how serious it was – and that’s when Dave shouted, “Brake!”
I had been so focused on what I might have to do down the road that I wasn’t paying much attention to the truck stopped in front of me on the berm. I stopped with room to spare, and I’m happy to report that no one was seriously hurt in the crash.
That is the danger of divided attention: two very important tasks were competing for my attention at the same time. There might have been important work for me to do. The car had hit a pickup trucking hauling logs almost head-on, so I expected to have to pry a door open or do CPR.
The problem is that the most important task – keeping my passengers and myself safe – was left by the roadside.
In the story we just heard of God’s calling Moses to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt – did you catch how many words related to looking and listening? This is a story about paying attention to what is really important.
Moses was taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep – which was an important task, and which required paying attention – looking out for wolves, thieves, and lost sheep. But God got Moses’ attention by speaking to him from a bush that was burning – without being burned up. That would get anyone’s attention.
God noticed that Moses moved toward the bush – and told him to come no closer. Moses then hid his face because he was afraid that he might see God. But he was still listening.
God had been paying attention, too. He told Moses that He had seen the misery of His covenant people in slavery. He had seen the abuse they had suffered and had heard their cries for deliverance.
And when Moses protested that he was not the man for the job, God promised him a sign by which he could see that it really was God who had given him this assignment.
God also gave Moses a name he could give to the Israelites if they asked who had sent him. It was a name that would make anyone pay attention: I Am Who I Am.
In our passage from Matthew 16, Matthew tells us that “Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Notice that Jesus showed His disciples what work He had to do – the work of suffering and dying to deliver us from our sin. He didn’t just tell them – He showed them. He explained it to them. He told them repeatedly, revealing more and more detail each time – but only as much as their minds could absorb.
The human mind can handle only so much information at a time before the emotions take over and “flooding” – as psychologists call it – prevents a person from taking in any more. It’s not all that different from the problem of divided attention.
So as Jesus and the disciples encountered a situation – a showdown with demons or a parable that angered people – He would use that to show them where His ministry was headed: it was headed to the cross.
He had one of those teachable moments almost immediately – when Peter took Him aside and told Jesus that he would never let that happen to Him. Jesus told Peter that he was thinking with human priorities – not God’s – and that those who are committed to following Him will have to take up a cross of their own. Following Jesus would be hard work.
We have work to do in God’s kingdom. The list is intimidating: there are billions of souls who need to hear the Gospel, billions of bodies that are hungry, thirsty, and sick, billions of minds that are troubled. There is injustice everywhere we look, conflict surrounding us, suffering of all sorts. All of them compete for our attention – so our attention is utterly divided.
We cannot begin to address it all. And it is so overwhelming that we are in danger of pulling back and not addressing any of it.
Pope John XXIII was renowned for his compassion – for his desire to meet people’s physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. When a reporter asked him how he was able to do so much for so many people, he explained, “I don’t try to help them all.” He knew that was impossible – so he focused on what God wanted him to be doing at that moment.
We need to pay attention to what God is telling us to do. We need to look and listen. We need to be tuned in. We need to be aware.
As the disciples – especially Peter – learned from Jesus, God knows where His mission is heading and where each of us fits into it. We do not. And the only way we are going to know what we should do is to be deeply connected with God.
And as busy as Moses was taking care of Jethro’s sheep – God got his attention long enough to show him where God’s mission was going and where he fit into it. Could that happen to us with anything less attention-grabbing than a voice from a burning bush that is not burned up?
I doubt it. I really doubt it. We live in an age of constant distraction – of perpetually-divided attention. We are busy almost all the time. If we are working, we are challenged to multi-task. If we’re not, we’re busy being entertained.
We cannot have a conversation with another person without a ding or a buzz interrupting it – or worse, our own need to check for new Facebook notifications’ prompting us to pull out our phones to take a peek.
But if we are serious about doing God’s work – the work that God wants done, not the work we think should be done – then we need to pay attention to Him. We need to keep our eyes and ears open. And that requires time with no distractions – just undivided attention.
Back in the 1990s, the Evangelical branch of Christianity encouraged believers to have “quiet time” every morning – which usually meant Bible reading and prayer. You don’t hear much about that anymore – because we cannot seem to find time in our day for that.
But we need it if we are to be effective workers in God’s kingdom. It doesn’t have to be in the morning – it can be anytime. The Bible reading and prayer are vitally important – but we need truly quiet time, as well. That is time when we are simply quiet in the presence of God. No distractions. Our attention totally focused on sensing the leading of the Holy Spirit. We may see it, we may hear it, we may feel it, we may find it in Scripture.
And we have to pay attention the rest of the day. We must keep our eyes and ears open to opportunities that God places in our path. We may see someone’s pain and offer comfort and hope immediately. We may hear of a need that we can meet. But that won’t happen if we are not paying attention.
If Jesus were telling the parable of the Good Samaritan today, He very well might alter the story a bit. The priest sees the beaten man but doesn’t hear his cries for help because he’s listening to an audiobook with his earpods. The Levite doesn’t even see the man because he’s texting – or cannot stop because he’s running late for the Synagogue board meeting. And the Samaritan stops because he was paying attention.
We have work to do for God’s kingdom. But we will never know what work God wants us to do unless we are paying attention. Amen.