Paying Attention

Homily for Sunday, April 29, 2018
Easter 5B
John 15:1–8

hospital bed-Matthew Perkins

Photo credit: Matthew Perkins

In October of 2016, the New York Times printed a letter from the Boston writer Peter DeMarco to the staff of the intensive care unit of the CHA Cambridge Hospital, thanking them for their care of his wife, who at age 34 was first hospitalized and then died from an asthma attack. DeMarco writes:



As I begin to tell my friends and family about the seven days you treated my wife […] they stop me at about the 15th name [… of] the doctors, nurses, respiratory specialists, social workers, even cleaning staff members who cared for her:

“How do you remember any of their names?”  they ask.  How could I not, I respond.  Every single one of you treated Laura with such professionalism, kindness and dignity as she lay unconscious.  When she needed shots, you apologized that it was going to hurt a little, whether or not she could hear.  When you listened to her heart and lungs through your stethoscopes, and her gown began to slip, you pulled it up to respectfully cover her.  You spread a blanket, not only when her body temperature needed regulating, but also when the room was just a little cold, and you thought she’d sleep more comfortably […]

Then, there was how you treated me […].  How many times did you hug me and console me when I fell to pieces, or ask about Laura’s life and the person she was, taking the time to look at her photos or read the things I had written about her?  How many times did you deliver bad news with compassionate words […]?

When I needed to use a computer for an emergency email, you made it happen.  When I smuggled in a very special visitor, our cat, Cola, for one final lick of Laura’s face, you “didn’t see a thing.”

And one special evening, you gave me full control to usher into the ICU more than 50 people in Laura’s life, from friends to co-workers to college alums to family members.  It was an outpouring of love that included guitar playing and opera singing and dancing and new revelations to me about just how deeply my wife touched people.  It was the last great night of our marriage together, for both of us, and it wouldn’t have happened without your support.

Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostles-Ducchio de Buoninsegna

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles, Ducchio di Buoninsegna, 1308–11, tempera on wood

Today’s Gospel lesson—and also the Gospel lessons for the next two weeks—come from Jesus’ farewell discourse in John chapters 14–17, Jesus’s words to his disciples the night before he died.  Like DeMarco’s letter, John’s farewell discourse is occasioned by a death.  But unlike DeMarco, in John the death has yet to happen.  And unlike DeMarco, the death is not of somebody else, but of Jesus himself, the one who is speaking.  If DeMarco’s gratitude to the staff of the intensive care unit following the death of his wife is remarkable—and I think it is —how much more remarkable are Jesus’ words to his disciples, spoken knowing full well that he himself is about to die, and not just any death, but the painful and shameful death of crucifixion.  In these chapters, even as he faces his own death, Jesus speaks thoughtful, even beautiful, words to his disciples:

 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.”
“I am the vine, you are the branches.”
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
“I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends.”
“Abide in me as I abide in you….  Those who abide in me bear much fruit.”

I wonder, how did John’s community come to have such a profound experience of Jesus, that they could imagine him speaking such beautiful words at such a difficult time?

We know that John’s community was steeped in the scriptures.  John’s gospel is shot through with images from the Old Testament, and many scholars believe that John’s community gathered not only on Sundays but also mid-week to reflect on the scriptures.  So maybe the scriptures opened John’s community to a profound experience of Jesus.  We know that John’s community was highly sacramental.  The “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6, for example, is all about Eucharist.  The Pool of Beth-Zatha, and the disciples’ going fishing in John 21 have baptismal overtones.  And the disciples’ gathering for eight days behind closed doors after the resurrection sounds a lot like the priestly ordination rite in Leviticus.  So maybe the sacraments gave John’s community their intimate experience of Jesus.


Fresco of an early Christian feast

I have no doubt that the scriptures and sacraments gave John’s community a profound experience of Jesus such that they could imagine him speaking beautiful words at the time of his death.  But I think there’s more…  Even before the scriptures and sacraments, as important as these are, I think John’s community—to have such a profound experience of Jesus—must have paid attention.  Paid attention to the world around them: to when it was night, for example (like when Nicodemus came to visit Jesus, or when Judas went out to betray him); to who was sick and for how long (the lame man had been ill “for thirty eight years”); to where there was water (“John… was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there”); to where exactly they were, be it on a mountain, in a home, in the city, or in the Temple; to gender and inclusion and who had power and who did not.  And not only did John’s community pay attention to the world around, they also paid attention to what was going on within: to the astonishment of the crowds; to the animosity of the Pharisees; to the grief over Lazarus’ death; to the affection of the Beloved Disciple; to the fear of the disciples behind closed doors; to the doubting of Thomas.  John’s community paid attention, both to God at work in the world and to God at work within.  And I can’t help but wonder if—even before the scriptures and sacraments—it was paying attention that gave John’s community so intimate an experience of Jesus that they could imagine him speaking such beautiful words at such a difficult time, on the last great night of their relationship together.

Keeping in mind how John’s community paid attention, the invitation I hear for us this morning is to pay attention.  To pay attention, as did John’s community, to the world around us.  To pay attention, as did John, to what is going on within.  Because as we pay attention, we will see God at work both around and within, working always, and always on our behalf, inviting us into closer relationship.  An intimate relationship with us is not only what Jesus wants, but also what we in our heart-of-hearts also want.  For there is nothing that so thrills the human heart—nothing that so helps us to come fully alive—as does knowing, loving and following Jesus Christ.  Who is always caring and looking out for us.  And who always has beautiful words.  For us.


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