Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Martha v. Mary

Luke 10: 38-42
Sermon Preached July 18, 2010

This morning we meet, once again, those two sisters Martha and Mary, who have become symbols of two different ways of being in the world – Martha, the active one, busily preparing the meal and cleaning the kitchen while her sister, Mary, is content to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. And when Martha complains that Mary isn’t helping out, Jesus gently chastises Martha:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Which makes this story the most deeply resented story in the entire gospels. I know people who proclaim Jesus as their Lord and Savior with the deepest sincerity: Jesus knew no sin, they say; he lived a life of perfection, every word that fell from his lips, a pearl of wisdom – except for the perfectly horrible thing he said to Martha.

How could he have been so insensitive to Martha? Why was he so willing to encourage that slacker Mary?

Yesterday I was at home in my study working on this sermon – well, actually, I was surfing the web and answering emails and downloading music – when my wife called up and asked me if I wouldn’t come downstairs and help clean the kitchen. I said, “But honey; I’m a Mary, not a Martha!”

Let’s just say this was not a successful strategy on my part… This bruise on my backside didn't get there by accident...

The truth is that we are a nation of Martha’s and always have been. Way back in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “Americans pursue their own welfare” with a “feverish ardor.” He described “this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance” (B00k 2, Ch. 13). [Thanks to Michael Parker for this quote: http://www.unitedparishbowie.org/parker/sermon_one_thing_is_necessary.html]

We are, in other words, “worried and distracted by many things.” We work more hours per year than any other major industrial nation. And now that we have Blackberries and iPhones and computers with all that email and the internet, we aren’t even at rest when we’re at rest –talking on Skype, tweeting our friends, updating our Facebook pages, never spending more than a few minutes on any one thing. Worried and distracted by many things? Martha had no idea.

Which is why I’ve put myself on a multi-tasking media diet. I was inspired to do this after hearing an interview between Stephen Colbert and a man named Nicholas Carr, who wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. This guy Nicholas Carr also wrote an article which gets at the issue a bit more directly; the title of the article is “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

And apparently, according to the latest studies on the brain, the answer is “Yes.” Quite simply, “the better we get at multi-tasking, the worse we are at thinking deeply.” This research indicates that the more distracted we allow ourselves to become by all of our multi-tasking, the more shallow our thinking becomes – and that these changes are reflected in actual physical changes in our brains on the cellular level.

He said, “The internet pushes us to a skimming and scanning type form of thinking… what the internet doesn’t provide us any opportunity to do is attentive thinking; the types of thinking like contemplation; like introspection; like reflection; and a lot of our deepest thoughts and certainly our deepest perceptual knowledge only emerge when we’re able to pay attention to one thing…”

In other words, those of us who are immersed in the electronic media of our age – and that includes just about everyone under the age of 50 – are literally becoming incapable of doing what came naturally to Mary: sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus and listening deeply to his Word. Deep, quiet, contemplative reflection is not something we do anymore. Which is perhaps why our political debates have become so sensationalistic and unreflective. Major issues of public policy are being determined by which sound bite or visual image is able to capture our mercurial attention spans for the longest periods of time.

So this is why I’ve put myself on a multi-tasking diet: because if your priest becomes incapable of deep thought, well, we might as well just hang it up. So now, when I’m reading, I’m reading. When I’m answering emails, which will be no more often than twice a day, I’m answering emails. When I’m praying or meditating, my computer and my phone are turned off.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”
; there is need of only one thing.

But we don’t need to be addicted to the internet to be worried and distracted by many things. Indeed, who among us is not worried and distracted by many things? This is not just a condition of the modern age; Jesus is, of course, pointing to a human condition.

And it all comes down, to use the great theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase, to our “ultimate concern.”

We all have an ultimate concern – that is, the one thing that we are living for, the one thing that gives our lives meaning and purpose.

Some of us make our jobs our ultimate concern – we get up in the morning thinking about work and we fall into bed at night thinking about work; and that’s all well and good until the day we get laid off or we retire, and suddenly our lives no longer have purpose or meaning. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. And so we turn our retirements into an imitation of our working lives; some of us work harder in retirement than we did when we worked for money – and by doing so, we hold the black dog of death at bay just a little bit longer. As long as we can remain active and be productive, we’re okay. It feels like staying busy is the only thing keeping us alive – because work is our ultimate concern.

But at some point we are no longer able to work. What then?

Some of us make leisure our ultimate concern – we work in order to live, we say; and by living we mean rest and recreation, hiking, golfing, dancing… And that serves us well as an ultimate concern, until we can no longer play golf or hike or dance.

What then?

Some of us then move on to making the simple act of staying alive our ultimate concern – until the only thing we are living for is drawing the next breath. And as the black dog of death approaches, we wonder, “What was the point?”

We look back over our lives and most of us can testify that we did the best we could; we worked hard and we did our bit to be good people and responsible citizens and we sweated the small stuff and then our spouse died and we found ourselves alone and barely surviving and pretty soon the ambulance comes and we’re gone. Our children sell the house and divide up the furniture and throw away the hundreds of little treasures we accumulated and have a funeral and the few people who still remembered us show up and talk about us with such platitudes that we wonder if they knew us at all, and then that’s it. We’re done. It’s over.

What was it all about?

What Jesus is suggesting to us Martha’s is this: not that cooking meals and doing the dishes is not important, but there is something even more important that is waiting for our attention. We are worried and distracted by many things; but some day all those things will be gone; meanwhile Mary has chosen the “one thing” that will never go away; the one thing that is the only thing worthy of ultimate devotion. The one thing that we might want to choose before we get out of bed in the morning and start our cooking and cleaning and running about.

The one thing that will be there, giving our lives purpose and meaning long after our careers are over and our to-do lists are checked off and our golf game has gone kaput and our very ability to get out of bed has come to an end.

The one thing that Martha would do well to find if she wants to live a life that has a greater purpose than holding the black dog at bay.

What is the one thing?

The answer, for many of us, comes too late; it comes at our funeral mass, when the priest processes down the center aisle carrying the Paschal candle and intoning these words:

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.

This is the only ultimate concern worthy of our devotion; the only concern that lifts us beyond the worries and distractions of our daily life. That we are alive in Christ. That we live for Christ. That we get out of bed for Christ; that we do the dishes for Christ; that all of it, the living and the dying, we do for Christ – who was in the beginning, and lives now and for everlasting, the Alpha and the Omega.

Only then will our worries and distractions fall away and our lives achieve ultimate meaning; only then will we find the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding. My prayer is that it may be so for all of us.

Somebody say…

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