In the Gospel reading we just heard, Jesus warns his disciples about what is coming when they get to Jerusalem. Jesus will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Mark is clear that Jesus said all this “quite openly.”
But Peter wasn’t prepared to hear what Jesus was saying. Neither, it turns out, were any of the other disciples. Jesus warns them all at least twice more, and yet still they were surprised when the crucifixion actually happened.
I am guessing there were lots of reasons why the disciples couldn’t take in Jesus’ shocking warning. But instead of guessing what their reasons were, I have been reflecting on why we so often can’t hear what God is saying to us.
Our reasons, too, are surely complicated. But a big reason for many of us is that we have a hard time paying attention.
I recently learned the concept of “the attention economy” from a newspaper article . The basic idea is simple. Human attention is a finite resource. Each of us can only pay attention to a limited number of things on any given day.
The problem is that LOTS of people are competing vigorously for our attention all the time. Some are our family and friends. I remember a particular friend of mine who was single, childless, and under-employed. He was a good man, and I enjoyed his company. But he had more time for our relationship than I did. He wanted more attention from me than I could give him, and our friendship eventually foundered.
But the really vigorous competition for our attention comes from people who want something from us. They want us to buy their product, or vote for their candidate, or support their cause, or whatever.
And the internet has made that competition truly fierce.
When I sign on to the internet, lots of news items pop up, and it’s hard for me not to pay attention. There are normally advertisements for things like a new mortgage, virtually always with an attractive woman in the picture.
The internet has clearly figured out that I come from Atlanta, because there are now routinely articles about the Atlanta Braves. Recently there was one about a player the Braves had just acquired. Turns out he isn’t a good hitter or fielder., It’s not clear he’ll even make the team. But there was the article on my screen, and I got sucked in, and I read about this player who will likely have no impact on the Brave’s season. That was a little wasted attention.
As I experience it, the most toxic articles that pop up are political. Like too many of us, I am drawn to outrageous headlines making extravagant claims about just how awful one side or the other is. I seem to get both, which, in a crazy way may be a good thing. But if that were my only source of news, the picture I would have of our political leaders would be wildly distorted.
According to my newspaper article about the attention economy, that is what we should expect. It reported that the internet “has disproportionate benefits for the most shameless among us,” which makes sense. Outrageousness is interesting, even when it is false and mean-spirited. And so social media platforms aim to outrage.
And this is where the newspaper article began to touch on Christian values, although without calling them that. Because competition for our limited attention is fierce, and because we are drawn to interesting—that is, outrageous, exaggerated, and shameless claims—“the value of true modesty or humility is hard to sustain in an attention economy.”
That’s a quotation from the article. I would add that restraint, compassion, forgiveness, even simple decency and basic honesty are hard to sustain in an attention economy like ours. Virtue and decency are not competitive when it comes to our attention.
I don’t have any grand ideas for how we might address these problems as a country. The attention economy is a basic fact of contemporary life, and it isn’t going to change. Someone with considerably more wisdom than I have needs to figure out what that means for the US.
But I can work on my own issues. We can all do that. And, particularly in this season of Lent, we as Christian people are called to do better than most of are doing.
The basic lesson from my newspaper article is to remember that “attention is a limited resource,” and so we should “pay attention to where you pay attention.” In the language of the Church, this is a form of self-examination.
I already said that opening the internet routinely exposes me to lots of attention-grabbing and often toxic articles. So, literally in the middle of writing this sermon, I transferred my bookmarks to a different browser that doesn’t have a news feed. Now when I want to check my email, I won’t see all that trash. Going forward, it should be a little easier for me to resist the temptation to mindlessly surf the internet. Since I tend to get sucked in most easily at night, I may also get a little more sleep, which would be an added bonus.
But the real payoff that I hope to see, the real payoff that I hope to encourage in you, is freeing up some of my attention so that I can listen more carefully for God’s voice in the midst of all the other competing claims on my attention.
Sometimes God whacks us over the head to get our attention. I think about Paul’s conversion. As Paul was travelling on the road to Damascus, God knocked him down, struck him blind, and then, having gotten Paul’s attention, told Paul what he had to do.
But more often in my experience God speaks in a still, small voice, a voice that can easily get lost in all the noise around us.
As Christian people, we strive to hear God’s voice, even when God’s voice is quiet. And that means listening in an intentional way. It means sometimes refusing to pay attention to all the stimulating messages that bombard us all the time and instead focusing on God.
Now, would paying a little more attention have helped Peter in our Gospel story? I don’t know. Probably what Jesus was telling Peter was so shocking that Peter had to live through Jesus’ crucifixion before he could really get the message. And sometimes that may be true for us too.
But in contemporary America, I worry that too often we miss what Jesus is saying altogether because we squander one of our most valuable resources, our attention, on things we would do better to ignore.
And so my invitation to you this week is to pay attention to what you pay attention to. And if you notice unhealthy patterns, think about ways to change them. It could be as simple as changing a web browser.
I end with thanksgiving to God for being patient with us, and continuing to speak to us even when we fail to pay attention. And I pray that God will help us to pay attention a little better. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Charlie Warzel, “The Internet Rewired our Brains. This Man Predicted It Would,” The Week in Review, New York Times, 2/7/21, pg 4-5.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan