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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Distracted Disciples

Pentecost 8C, 2010

Amos 8:1-12

Luke 10:38-42

How many of you watched the Baseball All-Star game Tuesday night? I watched most of it. I guess it’s ok to let the National League win once every thirteen years or so, as long as they don’t make a habit of it. As I watched the game, something amazing caught my attention every time the camera showed the batter from a particular angle, down the third base line. In the Anaheim ballpark, there are dugouts for spectators directly behind home plate. In the first baseline dugout, there was a young man standing at the fencing, head down, texting into his cell phone every time the camera showed him. He was in the best seats in the park, literally ten feet away from the best baseball players on earth, not watching them. He was furiously thumbing text into his cell phone.

A former parishioner and Facebook friend of mine is vacationing in Alaska with her husband. Every day this week she has been sending gorgeous pictures of the scenery out across the internet, which means that she brought her laptop computer with her on the trip. After the third day of her posting pictures, I replied to her post, “the pictures are beautiful, but why bring your computer on vacation? Be where you are!” She hasn’t posted since – or maybe she unfriended me.

A July 9 feature article in the Baltimore Sun noted that with the advent of portable communications devices, more and more American workers take their work with them on vacations, returning home as stressed – of not more so – than they were when they left:

A survey released by showed that 55 percent of workers come back from time off without feeling rejuvenated, and others struggle to cope with work-related stress while they're away. In a separate survey, staffing firm Robert Half International found that 69 percent of financial executives check in with the office at least once or twice a week while on vacation.[1]

Linda Stone, a technologist, writes, The disease of the internet age is ‘continuous partial attention.’”[2] We try to juggle reading, television, the internet, and conversations with someone sitting next to us simultaneously, and end up failing at every one.

Up! Was one of my favorite movies this past year. It’s the story of a widower whose house is being surrounded by high rise construction. He devises a plan to float the house through the air using thousands of helium balloons and fly to a remote paradise. The writers of the film clearly know and love dogs, as do I. Their depictions of how dogs think is brilliant, and is nowhere more on-target than in showing how easily dogs are distracted. No matter what is going on in the movie, as soon as someone cries Squirrel!, the dogs go crazy, trying to find the rodents. Sometimes it feels to me that we live in a permanently attention-deficit world, constantly chasing squirrels.

So, is this a new thing? This morning’s gospel lesson suggests otherwise. Jesus has come to the house of Mary and her sister Martha, to rest, to eat, and to teach. Martha busies herself with the work of hospitality: preparing food and drink, making sure that the guest of honor is comfortable and provide for in every way. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus’ feet with the disciples and others, listening intently to what Jesus has to say.

As Mary is bustling about the kitchen and household, you can hear what she’s saying under her breath: Sure would be nice to get some help with all this. Here I am, working like a dog to fix a nice meal for the Son of God, and that lazy sister just sits on her rump doing nothing. I can’t believe it. Who does she think she is? Can’t she see I need help? And why doesn’t Jesus tell her to come help me. He’s supposed to know everything – he should know how frustrated I am! Finally, Martha’s rage boils over and she confronts – not Mary – but Jesus, as if it’s his fault. Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!

Jesus’ response is no consolation to Martha: Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Thanks a lot, Jesus. And back to the kitchen Martha goes, no doubt muttering all the more.

What does Jesus mean by this rebuke to Martha? There’s a commonly repeated interpretation of this story which goes something like this: The most important thing in life is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. Taking care of people, feeding them, providing hospitality and giving them comfort are all good things, but the best thing of all is to listen to Jesus and debate theology. So, who ranks the highest in the church? Janitors and cooks, or Sunday School teachers and preachers?

Now, I want to defend Martha this morning. In part it’s because I’ve already discovered what good cooks the Marthas of Providence Church are. In fact, I’ve figured out how to catch up on our church finances: there are at least three women in this church who make killer coconut crème pies. All we need to do is start selling coconut crème pies to the public, and we’ll be able to pay off the new wing and start building the new sanctuary next year. What would our church be if everyone was a Mary and there were no Marthas? What would Vacation Bible School be this week if everyone wanted to teach, but no one wanted to fix food and build sets and decorate the church?

I also want to defend Martha because there’s a lot of Martha in me. When our children were small and our family would gather at Thanksgiving, I was always the adult who ended up keeping track of where all the small cousins were and what they were doing, while all the Marys sat around the living room and talked to each other. Like Martha, I would get madder and madder that the parents of all these obnoxious children paid absolutely no attention to them whatsoever, and Uncle Brooke ended up supervising the entire tribe. I am a Martha, too.

Where in the world would we be – as church, as families, as schools, as a community – without the Marthas? So, what is Jesus really saying here?

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Only one thing is necessary, Jesus tells the harried homemaker. What’s the one necessary thing?

I don’t believe it’s to abandon the ministry – listen to what I said – the ministry of hospitality for a life of contemplation. Jesus is telling Martha – and Mary, and everyone else in that room and this room – to pay attention to what you’re doing. Be where you are, in that moment. Whatever you are doing, do that thing with full attention and love and purposefulness. Martha’s problem wasn’t that she was fixing dinner instead of listening to Jesus – it’s that she allowed her anger at Mary to distract her from the all-important work she was pursuing. As my friend Alex Joyner says, this is not the hokey pokey, where we put our right arm in and take our right arm out, and shake it all about. Whatsover you are doing, do it with your whole self, as work done for the Lord, says Colossians 3:23.

The other mistake Martha makes is to triangle Jesus into the argument. That’s what dysfunctional families do – they talk about each other rather than to each other. Jesus refuses to take the bait. He will not be made the referee between the two sisters. He simply tells Martha to put her whole self into what she is doing, as Mary has put her whole self into what she is doing.

We live, as Linda Stone said, in an age of continuous partial attention. But that disease is nothing new – it dates back to the Garden, when Adam and Eve wanted to multitask and be both human and divine. Listen to Jesus: you are worried and distracted by many things: only one thing is necessary. Be where you are. Pay attention. Give your whole self to what you are doing at that moment. And ignore the squirrels.


[2] Bartlett and Brown Taylor, Feasting On The Word Year C, Volume 3, Knoxville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 267

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