Paying Attention to the Other

May 25, 2017 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Editor’s note: Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty gave the sermon for the Tropical Florida Presbytery’s Stated Meeting on May 20, 2017. He spoke on Acts of the Apostles 17:16(22)-34. Our deep thanks for the invitation to speak. Lee’s sermon is below. 

“It’s good to see you!”

“Really, it’s good to see you!”

The Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison, author of Cut Dead but Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men and founder of Fearless Dialogues, reminded me how important, how critical, how caring and how Christian it is to see others, and to be seen.

He says, that “until you SEE a person as a whole being, you will be unable to HEAR the person’s story as valuable and potentially informative. Community members who do not see and hear each other as persons of worth are unable to collaborate and work toward CHANGE.” The purpose of the “Fearless Dialogues” gatherings that he and his partners host is to “bridge the gap by creating spaces to see the invisible, hear the silenced, and work for change for self and other.”

I understand your mission as the Presbytery of Tropical Florida is “to empower congregations to be vibrant Christ-Centered communities” by “Sharing God’s love and doing God’s ministry always giving glory to God.” Your open space planned after worship will give you a chance to discuss and learn about Vibrant Christ-Centered Communities.”

I believe your mission starts with seeing those who are invisible or obstructed from view. John McClure, professor preaching and worship at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Presbyterian minister puts it another way, “We can learn to pay attention for details.” That’s what Paul was doing when he arrived in Athens, paying attention to who and what was around him. I suspect after being driven out of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, he wanted to try another approach.

And another approach it was. The tone and the content of Paul’s case is much different. Cuban-American theologian and former professor at Seminario Evangelico in Puerto Rico, among many others, Justo González posits that “Paul’s purpose in Athens was not to preach,  but merely to wait for his companions” Silas and Timothy.

However, while he waits he notices the philosophers and the poets and the objects of worship. He even looks closely at the inscriptions on these objects including one dedicated “to an unknown god.” In other words, Paul wanted to talk more about them, not him. When he does talk, he uses the words of their poets, language and structure familiar to them, to talk about “the one who gives life, breath, and everything else.”

You see, Paul recognized he was in a different context. Longtime pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., Bob Dunham, among others, says “Context is everything.”

In this case, “Paul stood in the markets of Athens and took note of the multiplicity of religions and philosophies co-existing in the center of the Hellenistic world.” He went to the synagogue, but that was not the center of his activity. Instead, he stood in the marketplace and, ultimately, the public square and center of intellectual life, the Aeropagus or Mars Hill with the Acropolis towering above.

Notice who he engaged and where he engaged them. Paul did not wait for the Greeks to come to him in the synagogue. Instead, he got out of his comfort zone and went to them where they gathered. Marjorie Suchoki may have said it best, “The ultimate Word is not a paragraph, but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is relational and communal, not propositional.”

So “What will it take for us, like Paul, to adapt quickly and decisively to the culture and subcultures around us in order to faithfully communicate the good news? Rather than encouraging listeners to run from the dominant culture or accommodate to that culture, we might… consider what it means to witness in such a situation” from Paul. John McClure describes that Christian witness not as a speech, but as a listening exercise.

Specifically, “listening carefully to the culture, hearing deep within it aspects of the ways people are seeking and searching for the one true God.” Like McClure and me, maybe you also ask: “What does that listening entail?” It first entails “learn[ing] to pay attention to the details.”

Did you notice that Paul’s Christian witness in the public square did not begin with critique? Instead, he “embodied intellectual and spiritual hospitality.  … He acknowledged whom he was talking with, granted their own creative powers of thought and invention, and invited them to go further in their thinking with him.” He even waits for their curiosity to be piqued and being asked to speak.

What is embodied intellectual and spiritual hospitality? In the biblical Greek, the word is philoxenia: philo is a familial/ brotherly or sisterly love. This is why Philadelpha is the city of brotherly love. And xenia is the word for stranger. Philoxenia is love of the stranger, a truly counter-intuitive concept then and now. They and we are more familiar and more comfortable with the exact opposite concept, xenophobia, fear of the stranger.

We know the critical value of hospitality because, we once were strangers too, right? Strangers are prevented from living a life full of promise, wherever and whenever that happens. Strangers… or as the Common English Bible translates those verses in the Pentateuch, “immigrants” should be welcomed and treated as if they are citizens. Scripture is replete with texts directing the community of faith to welcome strangers, the other. According to the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, “the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ but no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.’

Loving the stranger begins by noticing them… the ones that we often bypass. That means we need to pay attention as a spiritual discipline. Paying attention, Episcopal preacher and college and Columbia Theological Seminary professor Barbara Brown Taylor says, “requires a certain pace.  … a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of the original plan.” Like the one Moses took to see the burning bush when he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”

Paying attention means we don’t always look where we usually look, we turn our attention elsewhere.  Taylor says, “What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside. Wherever else he was supposed to be going and whatever else he supposed to be doing, he decided it could wait. He parked the sheep and left the narrow path (he was on) in order to take a closer look at a marvelous sight. When he did, (scripture tells us), God noticed him.  God then dismisses the angel and took over the bush.”

Taylor says, “the practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore.  To see (to see!) takes time, like having a friend takes time.”

And our “paying attention [to others helps us learn] how God pays attention to [us]. Allowing others to hold our attention teaches us how God holds us.

Paying attention is one of 12 Christian spiritual disciplines that Barbara Brown Taylor describes in her must-read book, Altars in the World. Akin to paying attention, is Encountering the Other that she describes as “the hardest [and possibly only ] spiritual work in the world [because it’s about] lov[ing] our neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”

Have you encountered preaching at a public event or place lately? My most recent encounter was outside an arena in downtown Louisville normally reserved for rock concerts and basketball games, the KFC Yum Center. On that particular day, I was going to the public memorial for Muhammad Ali where speakers from at least five different faith traditions spoke.  It was a service about understanding and love, peace and hope. But all the street preacher could do was to shout at other, resist anything anyone else had to say, and hold up a sign that said, “Hell awaits you!” I could see that kind of hate in his eyes even before I heard the hate in his words.

Apparently, there are groups and gangs of street preachers of this ilk that gather at large public events and preach at people. Do they do that here? I know they do in Louisville for every Kentucky Derby weekend at the racetrack as tens of thousands gather. I know they are not listening to others or really paying attention to them but, what’s more, I wonder if they are even in the right places at the track. What about the other side of the horse track? They call it the backside. It’s where the grossly underpaid and maltreated migrant workers, largely Hispanic and other persons of color, work to take care of the horses.  I can tell you that’s where you’ll find the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary students witnessing and proclaiming the good news in promising ways… and not just on the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, but all season, whether the crowds are large, small, or nonexistent.

Paying attention to the other is transformative for all involved. Scripture teaches us that when we welcome the stranger, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “the stranger shows [us] God. Abraham and Sarah encounter God when they welcome three strangers into their tent. Jacob encounters God when he stays up all night wrestling a stranger by the river Jabbock. When the people Israel are in exile in Babylon, God anoints a Persian stranger named Cyrus to bring them home. In his first sermon in Luke’s gospel, Jesus …[points] out that God sent Elijah to save a widow in Sidon” who did not know him. Jesus’ description of the kindom of God in Matthew 25 reminded his followers then and us now how we welcome Christ when those who are hungry are fed, those who are thirsty are given a drink, those who are naked are clothed, those who are in prisons are visited, and those who are strangers are welcomed.

Hannah Adair Bonner is the Curator of The Shout: a spoken-word poetry focused artivism movement seeking to nurture a community of multi-ethnic, multi-generational, justice-seeking, solidarity-building people in Houston, Texas. She is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and an ordained United Methodist Church minister. Her unconventional ministry, The Shout is, she says is, people, words, action, and hope.  Her mission and the church’s mission is one word: Amplify. Amplify the voices of the seldom seen and rarely heard.

Bonner finds and goes to places in Houston where people are doing poetry and brings them together periodically to find a question or theme and then curate their own gathering of spoken word they call “The Shout.” The theme of next Tuesday Shout is “Why Choose Courage?” Bonner and the Shout are known nationally for walking alongside the Black Lives Matter movement in the untimely shooting and death of Sandra Bland.

We sang “Wait for the Lord” today. I wonder if we are willing to wait like Paul in Athens, see others, hear their stories, and work for change and transformation with them? Maybe God is waiting on us to respond by paying attention to the others, especially strangers, for promising proclamation in the public square.  May that be our aim. Amen.