paying attention

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on November 24, 2019

•2 Kings 22:1-10; 23:1-3•

In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle tells about when the church became a homeless shelter for 50 or sometimes 100 men at night. The side effect of such ministry was that every Sunday morning, the church members could smell that they had hosted dozens of men the night before. And as can happen from time to time in a church, a stir was caused among the worshipers. Some were disgruntled and disgusted that their church could seem so unkempt on a Sunday morning when they were supposed to be giving glory to God.

So, Father Greg decided to raise the issue. One Sunday morning, after the church had hosted the shelter, he opened his sermon with a question: “What’s the church smell like?” The people were mortified. They sat in silence looking at their shoes. They avoided eye contact at all costs. They hoped it was a rhetorical question. But it wasn’t.

“Come on, now,” Father Greg threw back at them, “What’s the church smell like?” “It smells like feet!” Don Rafael boomed out. Don was old and never cared about what people thought. “Excellent,” Father Greg said, “And why does it smell like feet?” “Cuz many homeless men slept here last night,” a woman replied.

Seeking to keep the conversation going, Father Greg asked, “Well, why do we let that happen here?” “It’s what we’ve committed to do,” says another. “Well, why would anyone commit to do that?” Father Greg asked. “It’s what Jesus would do,” some said in unison.

“Well, then….what does the church smell like now?” A man stood and bellowed out, “It smells like commitment.” “It smells like roses,” another shouted. And the entire congregation cheered in faith. When I read this story last week I was moved by how honest everyone was — minus the smelling like roses piece — there is no way that was true. But the rest of the conversation feels real and honest. The church smelled like feet, but it smelled that way because the community committed to doing the ministry of Jesus and for them it meant hosting a homeless shelter in their sanctuary.

At the beginning of the sermon it seems the congregation was caught up in their own world. They showed up on Sunday to worship and the fact that their sanctuary smelled like the inside of the sneaker someone wore without socks on a hot summer day wasn’t working. The smell jarred them out of their weekly practice of church as usual. They weren’t able to worship from a place of openness. But then after Father Greg slowed them down enough to understand the reason — when Father Greg helped them stop and pay attention — their entire experience changed. The church still smelled like feet, but they went from frustrated to cheering. From annoyance to joy. What a difference paying attention can make.

There is lots to pay attention to in our reading today. For starters we read that Josiah took over the throne when he was eight years old. Now I have known some third graders in my time and while they think the world revolves around them, not once would I ever think the idea of them being king is a good one. But here we are told, “(Josiah) did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.”[i] In other words, Josiah was mature beyond his years.

A fact we see, as we come to the second part of the story. We have jumped 18 years ahead and so our leader is now 26 years old. Now the biblical narrative doesn’t have a great track record with young leaders — do I need to remind you about Rehoboam? The leader we heard about at the end of October. The one who insulted his father’s manhood and threatened to add to the weight of his people’s misery. It’s not a great history — but Josiah is no Rehoboam. Josiah is the exception and he shows this as he not only pays those who are rebuilding the temple, but gives them all their funds upfront. He operates in a different kind of way than that of his predecessors.

Which leads into the third thing to pay attention too. Now this third one is difficult as our reading does not include the full story and so you actually didn’t hear this piece. You see we skip a bundle of verses in the middle of our reading and unfortunately the verses we skip give all the context to the final piece.

Our reading jumps ahead right after the secretary, Shaphan reads the missing book to the king and so we miss hearing how after listening to his secretary the king immediately tears his clothes — an act which shows how distressed he is. In the cliff notes version of what we are missing, Josiah bemoans their ancestors lack of commitment to God and so he sends a number of his advisors to inquire of the Lord what is to come, because he is just sure God is angry. The gaggle of advisors goes to the prophetess Huldah who tells them that the people have angered God in an irrevocable way. Not only have they not followed God’s command, they have been building altars to all kinds of other gods. God says disaster is coming and there is nothing they can do to stop it.

And so what does Josiah do with the news of destruction? We read he gathers everyone in the kingdom together and recommits to the details. He lays out the importance of paying attention to God’s activity.

I have been reading a book entitled, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. One section talks about the importance of paying attention. It says, “many of us are choosing to live lives that do not set us up to pay attention, to notice those places where God is at work and to ask ourselves what these things mean. We long for a word from the Lord, but somehow we have been suckered into believing that the pace we keep is what”[ii] is necessary.

Think about it… we wear our busyness as a badge of honor. We ask one another, “what have you done today?” When we are asked how things are going, we try to sneak in how busy we have been. We are on the performance treadmill and that doesn’t allow us to truly pay attention.

And isn’t that our call? Isn’t our true work to pay attention to the ways in which God is active in the world and seek to meet God in that work? To notice God’s activity in the lives of those around us —at work in creation — and in the midst of our own life?

And it seems to me this is where the church has done a great disservice. Not just in the time of 2 Kings — when Josiah’s ancestors let him down, by not sharing, nor following God’s call — but also in our time. It seems to me rather than focusing on God’s activity, the church has been spending time focusing on declining numbers or a lack of volunteers or declining worship offering as though those things were the most important thing. The need to keep the church strong and viable…

And in some ways that is what Josiah was up to. This whole story started with Josiah rebuilding the temple — rebuilding the church — but then a long lost book was found that reminded him of what was really important. Thankfully, he was able to set aside the busyness to see God at work. I wonder would we have the same capacity, courage or wisdom to pay attention?

Would we be able to emulate Moses, who stopped and noticed the blazing bush that was not consumed or as the song goes, are there planes to catch and bills to pay? Would we slow down as Naomi did to see the raw determination of Ruth to be with her or just go ahead with our plan? Would we stop as David did and revaluate our plan and process in encountering God or is the death of a servant simply the cost of doing business?

Our lives are busy. Our schedules keep us on the move. God is in our midst, yet do we witness God’s activity? Do we see the blessing as we move from here to there? Would we know why the sanctuary smells like feet or would we simply try to fix it… clean it… get to the next thing… and end up missing God’s work among us?

And our God is doing some stuff. I think of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel. Mary’s only son, 20-year-old Laramiun Byrd, was murdered by 16-year-old Oshea Israel. Oshea received a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder. Mary’s life was filled with anger and hatred, it clouded everything, until one day she read a poem about two mothers — one mother whose child had been murdered and the other mother whose child was the murderer. Mary talks about the healing that came from understanding the commonality of pain. It took some time, but many years later Mary visited Oshea in prison and since his release in 2010 they have lived as neighbors in the Northside community of Minneapolis sharing what forgiveness really looks like.[iii]

Mary’s life was full of hatred and anger. The root of bitterness ran deep. She spent years walling people off. And then one day, a poem had her stop and pay attention — it was her own unconsumed burning bush — or lost book — and God’s activity was noticed. And when it was Mary began a movement toward forgiveness. For Josiah it was a movement toward the practices of faith. For us the possibilities of movement are endless.

For as we pay more attention we will see how active God is in our own life, in the life of those we love, and in the life of the world. In a week in which many will sit around tables enjoying turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, I can think of no better way to give thanks for all God’s activity and blessing, then noticing it and joining God in sharing God’s grace, forgiveness and love with the world. Amen.


[i] 2 Kings 22:2 (nrsv)

[ii] Barton, Ruth Haley. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018) 62.

[iii] Story found at https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/mary-johnson-and-oshea-israel on November 20, 2019.

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