Attention Is Our Prayer
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Sermon/Rector's Address – 2023 Annual Meeting
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Usually, Jesus’ teaching style is subtle. He loves his parables—speaking in metaphors that even the disciples had a rough time understanding sometimes. Usually. But not today. Today, Jesus is extremely direct. He’s grabbing us and saying, THIS, this is what you need to pay attention to. I need you to understand this right now—no meandering stories with hidden meaning.
My priority, Jesus says, is the oppressed, the hurting, the weak, the people who lead with love. They are my priority on this earth. That is where my attention is focused, and that is where I am calling you to pay attention.
The Philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.”
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.
I’ve been thinking a lot about attention lately. I’m reading a book called Stolen Focus, which is about how so much about our modern life has eroded our ability to pay attention: our screens, the cravings for likes on social media, advertisements everywhere, and even the processed food we eat and the polluted air we breathe—they all compromise our brain’s ability to sustain focus.
If we can’t pay attention, Simone Weil might ask, how can we pray? And if we can’t pray, how can we sustain ourselves to do what Jesus has called us to do?
Well, I think that’s where community comes in, where the Body of Christ comes in. I think that’s where St. Luke’s comes in.
Most of you have heard me joke about how a friend in seminary preached a sermon called Community is Excruciating. Because, let’s be real, it can be sometimes. Whenever a group is gathered together, no matter what it is that’s bringing them together, people are going to get irritated with each other. Or even angry. Because we all have different ways of being, different ways of getting things done, different motivations—and sometimes those differences clash.
But community is that which sustains our attention through those differences. Because community calls us to something different than doubling down on our individual ways of being. It calls us to see that our differences are absolutely essential to the thriving of our community.
“If all were a single member,” the apostle Paul writes, “where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
In community, we must be able to sustain our attention beyond our discomfort when someone does something we don’t like, when one person has a very different idea about how to get something done, even when someone believes a very different thing.
Because in community, in the Body of Christ, we have all agreed that individual well-being is inextricably bound to our collective well-being. Over and over again, that’s what Jesus teaches us. And Paul takes that lesson and expands upon it. “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”
The Body of Christ is what holds our focus. Being part of this community is a practice in sustaining attention.
As you know, today is our parish’s Annual Meeting. And as I’ve been reflecting on the past year, I have been so moved to realize how much deep attention each of you gives to this community.
This past year has felt like when someone has had a stroke, and they have to learn how to use one side of their body again. Here’s what I mean: we keep thinking that the pandemic is behind us. First of all, it’s not—people are still suffering and dying. But second, we have been relearning how to be in community after a traumatic event. Things changed during lockdown. Certain social muscles atrophied. Certain practices that seemed so important before the pandemic now seem trivial or senseless. Priorities shifted. Not just for St. Luke’s, but for everyone.
I think that this was most evident in our Welcome Ministry. It was hard to get our bearings after being apart and coming back together in really necessarily cautious ways. The Omicron wave hit hard last winter, and we didn’t lift our mask mandate until March when the state lifted theirs. Even without masks, it was hard to pull Coffee Hour together. We didn’t really start up Coffee Hour until Deacon Laurel’s retirement celebration, and even then our community has only had the energy to host a few Sundays a month. We’re learning to use our body again.
Speaking of Deacon Laurel leaving, I miss her. She called us to care for the world and ourselves from the pulpit. She was a friend and support to me and to many of you. She worked hard for St. Luke’s, and her retirement was much deserved.
She was one of a host of leavings. Good leavings, but still, we miss Sr. Marlene Ita. We miss Raven and Josh and Lilly Mae and Cora Rose. We miss Deborah and Bill Dobrenen. We miss Steve and Lisa Achilles. They all moved away for life-giving reasons, and we sent them off with prayers and love. But that’s 10 members of our family! A lot of grief.
And with the departure of Raven, our Children and Youth Ministry faded. Right now, we don’t have a critical mass of children and youth for a formal program. If we want to be a parish for children and youth, it’s going to take one or a few of you to dedicate your attention and time and energy to cultivating it. And maybe we don’t have that right now. That’s okay.
We let a few ministries go fallow last year. Morning Prayer and Compline, which were led by some of our departing members. Lainey, our fearless Centering Prayer leader, and Deborah Aronson, founder of Time for Us, formerly known as the Anxiety Fun Group, wound down those ministries that kept us in community through the ebbs and flows of this ever shifting pandemic time.
We have focused our attention in other ways. A Cursillo group started here. Our Young-ish Adults have been gathering regularly. Fr. Bob offered a Lenten retreat. In the fall, we had a reemerging of sorts. Deborah Aronson set up a Ministry Fair to give us leads on how each of us might step into our gifts here. She brought us together once again at Thanksgiving for a fabulous potluck that all of us contributed to—our first feast as a community in a long, long time. Shauna led a powerful book group about working with our trauma. Seven people took our Meaning of Membership class. Six of them committed to St. Luke’s last Sunday. Including Shelley who took up Roberta’s mantle, and took on the Prayer Shawl Ministry last November and expanded it into the Care Craft Ministry.
Because, as we all know, Roberta had had other things to do. She has transformed the ministry of caring for our church home, this building and these grounds. You’ll see in the Ministry Report a detailed breakdown of ALL Roberta and her team—Sid, Gale, her husband Larry, and others—have done for this community. A community clean-up day in April. Taking inventory of everything in the building. Getting a building audit, fixing the roof, making our electricity safe, and, yes, replacing those darn furnaces. She met with vendors, got bids, coordinated work. She worked with Judy to clean out and clean up Springwater so that we might rent it this year for some extra income.
If we had a Blood, Sweat, and Tears award, Roberta would be the winner. In the coming year, I will be inviting our Vestry and our community into some deep discernment about our church home and its future. Because it demands a lot of our resources.
Our music ministry continues to be an anchor for our worship life. During our Lenten planning last year, Michael Lasfetto wondered if we could sing the Prayers of the People, which has become a lovely practice during worship. Shelley and Nathan and Eva and Lainey and Ginger and—who am I missing?—have shared their music during the offertory along with Barry and Jack and Br. Dave and Judy and Kathy who hold our musical space every Sunday. And the Shared Joy Bringers finally returned!
I think one of the musical highlights in worship last year was the pop-up choir. Raise your hand if you were part of the pop-up choir! Easter’s song proclaiming Jesus Risen was especially delightful.
Kathy, Jack and our good friend Jane the cellist offered Taize a few times last year, including a service dedicated to the people of Ukraine. They offered a drop-in Open Sanctuary for Lent. Then when mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas took the lives of 31 people, including 19 children, they held space for us in a Quiet Vigil.
I love our musical congregation and all the ways Kathy, our Music Minister, invites anyone into it. Even I started chanting for communion during Lent. That’s how safe I feel in this space.
Our worship continues to be the beating heart of this place. So many of you make it happen. We see your names listed in the bulletins every Sunday: Altar Guild, Acolytes, Greeters, Readers, Musicians, a variety of lay preachers who brought their own approach to faith to the pulpit and—new this past year—the AV Club. The Audio/Visual Club makes Zoom worship happen. Kirby leads it, and Sho, Riley, and Shauna all help people who can’t get here in person be part of our community. And Josh Herrington, bless his heart, continues to consult from Georgia and troubleshoot when things happen—like losing our sound on Christmas Eve.
We had a van Gogh Lent with Judy Bevilacqua coordinating a community coloring station. We had Ye Olde Advent with Rite 1 and Lainey guiding us in Advent wreath-making. And we had Blue Christmas that held all the complicated feelings of grief and loss that the holiday season can stir up.
With the departure of Deborah Dobrenen, Pat Canham has made sure that our relationships with Zarephath and My Father’s House have remained strong. Linda Simmons holds our relationship with Kizimani in Kenya. And we raised over $2000 for refugees, including for the Dobrenen’s friend Ali and his family, who fled from Afghanistan.
I bring attention to all these things, because all of you have brought such loving attention to all these things. All these gifts and all the time and energy you offer, they’re your prayers for St. Luke’s.
And I want to bring our attention to just one more thing. Over the past year, a small group of volunteers has been gathering to discuss how we as a parish want to be in authentic relationship with our larger Gresham community. This group started out being called From Charity to Relationship, but we changed it recently to From Transactional to Relational. We’ve been talking about how to move from a transactional us/them perspective in engaging with others: us who have the resources giving to them who are in need, to a Body of Christ relational perspective: all of us are dependent on one another for our mutual thriving.
Now I don’t know if you’ve been listening to this very long sermon/rector’s report, but we’re already pretty good at being in authentic relationship with one another in our church. We’re not giving because we expect something in return, we’re giving because it’s joyful to offer our gifts for the benefit of our community. And when we all give, we also all naturally get to receive the gifts around us.
You may not be able to play music during worship, but you get to soak it in, and maybe you serve on Altar Guild and set the tone of this space for the musicians and all of us. Mutual thriving. We’ll be diving even deeper into that idea this year.
You make this place happen. This little part of the Body of Christ comes to life when you step into the gifts God gave you. Your talent, your energy, your time, your money. And when we’re all giving as we can, it allows us to rest when we need to.
It’s what a body does.
So I want to thank God for each of you today. For the unique way God made you, the unique gifts God gave you, the unique joy you bring to this space. I want to thank God for the attention you bring to our community, which is a prayer, which is trust that what we do here matters. Everything we do in this little corner of the Body of Christ in Gresham—every person we greet, every spreadsheet or schedule we create, every meeting we attend, every song we sing—builds just a little bit more of God’s kingdom among us.