MAY 2, 2023
Distraction. Distractions can be good or bad.
They are welcome or unwelcome. They can usher in sudden unexpected beauty or they can bring a productive life to screeching halt. If you’re paying attention to life, you’ll allow the good distractions to be just what they are you’ll savor them, straining out every last drop that they have to offer because it is precisely in those moments God’s stoking the flames of joy and wonder within you outside of the local church. In church, we’re in the presence of each other, the Scriptures are opened and proclaimed. Our prayers are prayed. We listen to God, we listen to each other, and we listen even to the story of our own lives. We take communion, repent of sins, and are sent out week by week, empowered by the Spirit to live.
But outside of the church, God brings wonders to you moment by moment. In the mornings, as you step outside to let the dog out and sip your coffee, a seagull flies over, and for no particular reason, you watch her soaring back and forth making her way west, back over to Carkeek Park. Or maybe it’s a street musician who happens to be playing Somewhere over the Rainbow on a clunky, slightly out of tune piano, and it sounds just perfect right there in that moment with the smells of the pastry shop filling the air and you just feel alive, you know? So you stand there and hope you have at least a buck waded up in your pocket to drop in the can of the poor fellow who is playing his heart out. Sometimes, you look out your front window and see a familiar face; it’s your friend who happened to drop by just because she made an extra batch of peanut butter cup cookies just for you.
Those distractions really shouldn’t be called distractions. At the end of the day, we think about that seagull, the piano man, the precious face with the peanut butter cookies, we say to God, “Thank you for all the grace that came my way today. From sun up to sundown it has felt like dessert was on the house.” And God smiles and says, “Oh it sure was! You’re welcome. Thanks for noticing. Mercy will be new again in the morning, as always.” It is best to tune into those distracting graces. They make their way into your prayers, right alongside confession of sin and all the rest. Those graces help to lift your head on the harder days.
But then there’s the other kinds of distractions that slow us down and keep us from what is most important. My goodness, our lives are filled to the brim with these kinds of distractions every single day! The dictionary defines distraction as “a thing that prohibits someone from giving their full attention to something else.” The thesaurus uses words like diversion, interruption, disturbance, interference, and obstruction to help us better understand this all-too-human-nuisance.
I’ve been around for 40 years and I can say that the definition of distraction really does fit so much of my experience as a human being. What about you? Giving your full attention to something else can be hard work – even to people and things that you really love. That’s because attention is costly. You see, when you boil all of the water out of the pot, all you’ve really have is time in one hand and your attention in the other. Where will it go? What will you spend it on? How will you steward your attention? Yes, stewarding your attention is just as important as having an answer as to how you plan to spend your time; your life. Your life is where you spend your attention.
As you know, our generation is more distracted than ever. Every moment there’s another notification, another news story, another thing to be made aware of most of which is never worth a moment’s notice. Does anyone really care about who married who in Hollywood? Though we are more distracted than ever, we are hardly the inventors of distraction or the first of the human race to experience distraction. It goes back to the beginning. I imagine that after eating the fruit in the Garden, and consequently being forced to leave, Adam and Eve walked out of paradise in tears and even in that moment Adam was already half distracted by something else.
The Scriptures are filled with the pain of distracted people and individuals. Moses’ anger gets in the way and keeps him from his calling. David was distracted by Bathsheeba. Solomon was preoccupied with his luxury and indulgence. Peter was distracted walking on the water. Even the soldiers who strung Jesus up on his cross, with him screaming and writhing in pain distracted themselves at the foot of his cross with dice, gambling for his clothes.
Perhaps the most famous scene of distraction comes to us in the famous story of two sisters – Mary and Martha.
Luke records in the tenth chapter of his gospel that
…as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.
There were plenty of moments in which the man of sorrows was despised “and we esteemed him not.” Rejected, questioned, and often scorned by the elite or common people, Jesus faithfully carried out his ministry in loving those who would not love him in return. As we read through the gospels, we sometimes find it puzzling as to how someone who is so kind can be despised so much.
I have the suspicion that the Son of God was more like a mirror than anything. People would see him; but they would see not only him, but they see the parts of themselves that they would rather keep concealed; resulting in name calling and gnashing teeth. This is what happens when we encounter Truth, holiness, and righteousness. We don’t like being confronted by Truth alone. Grace is what helps the medicine of truth go down. Martha recognized that in Jesus, and so she did what anyone who is eager for the truth would do; she welcomed Jesus into her home. Just imagine for a moment this evening, as you sit there and look across the room into the empty chair, that’s Jesus’ seat.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.
Now enters the beloved sister, Mary. She heard Jesus’ voice, she saw his face, she sat there at the feet that would be one day nailed to a cross, and she did what any thirsty soul would do given the opportunity; she listened. She held her tongue. She didn’t doodle or debate or stare off into space. No, she did the thing that we all struggle to do. She listened. Sitting there in a dirt floor, next to the dusty feet of the Savior’s and she hung on every word. Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus happened to be teaching about.
Based on what we know, Jesus taught the way of the Kingdom of God. Jesus taught live by faith, to walk in the light, to love God and love our neighbors, to be the forgiving, serving, praising community of God. Jesus was teaching and Mary was listening. If you’re going to spend your life with Jesus, you may as well spend it listening to him. Don’t just go to church services or sing along or read Spiritual books. Live with the intention of listening to Jesus.
40 But Martha was distracted with much serving.
Martha, the sister who had recognized Jesus and welcomed him in, suddenly found herself in a place in which she was no longer comfortable, no longer content, no longer able to simply be with Jesus. Perhaps she thought to herself that it was simply too much. It would require too much vulnerability, too much time, too much honesty. It’s hard to be in a room filled, with pure honesty, you know.
To sit at the feet of the one who knows your whole life story is such hard work. And not only know the countless moments of disgrace that have happened on the outside, Jesus knows a bit more. He’s aware of the thoughts and intentions of every heart. So to look him in the eye would be almost unbearable where it not for grace. And maybe that’s just it, for whatever reason grace felt a little too far out of reach that particular afternoon.
Rather than sitting at his feet, learning directly from his own blessed mouth; she busied herself with the daily routines. She allowed her hurried mind to be pulled in many directions. What’s curious is that she was not distracted with common vices that keeps one far from God. Instead of descending into the den of gluttony and fleshly indulgence she does that which is virtuous and respectable. After all, if the Son of God is nearby, shouldn’t you be doing something, doing anything, other than just sitting there? Beware of this church, the other side of the coin of badness is busyness.
Her frantic cleaning and rushing about the home to make it even more hospitable with the tea boiling and bread over the fire cooking, her resentment grows toward Mary and finally with sweat on her brow, her sleeves rolled up past her elbows and a smudge of soot on her cheek, she spouts out
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
Of all the people in the world and all the questions to ever ask, Martha interrupts Jesus teaching over whether or not he cares for her well-being, too. The man who was born in a manger and faces Calvary for the forgiveness of sins… isn’t put on his heels by the question as to whether or not he “cares.” People have asked him this question every every single day. “Don’t you care about this or that, Lord Jesus?”
This is how we sound when distraction takes over; our anxiety goes up, our faith goes down, and we no longer see Jesus as the one filled with boundless compassion, limitless power, and bottomless grace. In our busyness, he is reduced to just another face in the crowd; another mouth to feed, another guest to entertain. He’s just like everyone else.
Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?
I suppose Martha is not only frustrated with herself over the fact that she simply can’t sit at Jesus’ feet for some personal reason, she’s also bothered that she’s alone in her frantic serving. I’m sure by now you’ve discovered that you don’t have to be in solitary confinement in order to experience loneliness. You can be alone in a crowd. You can be alone with a house full of people. You can be alone in the grocery store, a ballgame, or a meal with friends. You can be alone in church. It’s one thing to serve Jesus with friends and family. It’s quite another to go it alone.
What about you? This year has been so exhausting in so many ways. Many of us have had so much extra weight put on the bar. More has been expected of us than ever before. Are you weary in serving Jesus and others? Something to be mindful of is the fact that we struggle not with the work required of us as much as the way we’re going about it. When we feel most exhausted in serving Jesus, it is because we are “alone” in serving. But not only does Martha question Jesus over whether or not he “cares” about her. She gives Jesus an instruction as to how the day will run much better according to her agenda instead of his.
Tell her to help me.
When we are distracted, anxious, unsure of ourselves or how the day is going to turn out, we clamor for control, for power, for a sense of stability, of predictability. When that happens our rudeness goes to the front seat, our pride goes through the roof and we put on the bossy hat and begin to bark orders at others. In those moments we forget who really are, and will even have the audacity to tell Jesus himself how it is and how he ought to run the show. “I’m alone with the kettle on the stove, dinner in the oven, and the laundry to fold! Tell her to help me! This is her laundry anyway!”
41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things,
Those famous words; Martha Martha. Jesus said her name twice.
Why do we repeat people’s names?
We repeat the name of our dog who is about to run out into the busy street.
We repeat the name of our child when we are looking for her.
We repeat the name of our favorite player as he makes his way down the field.
We repeat the names of those we love.
We eventually stop saying the names of those who have hurt us, wronged us, and wounded us.
In this moment, you can hear the sigh of Jesus as he repeats her name; Martha, Martha. Jesus acknowledges her anxiety, her concerns, her stretched out soul and he knows that it’s not just one thing or two things but “many things” that has her troubled. And then with tenderness in his voice and compassion in his eyes, and genuine and a care for her that will ultimately lead him to Calvary’s cross in which, he would become the unhurried servant of all, Jesus reminds her that
42…One thing is necessary.
Just one thing is actually necessary in this moment, Martha. A singular focus; a simplified approach to life; the willingness to slow down, get off the hamster wheel of your own unrealistic expectations, and simply take a seat, to choose the good portion at the feet of Jesus. That’s the one thing that is necessary. Yes, there are other responsibilities in life that must be attended to but when it comes down to chores versus being present to Jesus; Jesus wins every single time hand over fist. One thing is necessary. And if you, like Mary, choose the good portion of sitting with him, he will not be quick to hurry you off to taking care of the world. There’s more to learn from him. Listen to him.