Monday, July 19, 2010

Mary and Martha

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Kate Alexander of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with her permission.

There is a new book out about how people don’t read books anymore. Author Nicholas Carr has recently published The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And according to the author, the picture is grim. He argues that the internet is a medium based on interruption, and it’s changing the way people read and process information, even at a cellular level. While once we valued wisdom that comes from concentration, singular focus, and deep reading, there is not much of that to be found online. OK, before I go any further with this, I should confess that I have not read the book, but I did see a headline about it online and clicked on an interview with the author. Case in point.

Carr began research for this book when he noticed a change in his ability to concentrate. This is how he described it. “I’d sit down with a book, or a long article, and after a couple of pages my brain wanted to do what it does when I’m online: check e-mail, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page.” And, this kind of multitasking and hopping around lasts long after we shut down our computers. He suggests that in our modern, digital age, we have achieved an almost constant state of distraction.

Well, when I came across Carr’s argument, I felt like he was preaching to me. I fall into that category of the chronically distracted, and I would venture a guess that many of you do, too. I have a smart phone with email, text messages, Facebook and the internet at my fingertips at all times. My news comes not from newspapers but through internet headlines and on the radio in the car. I go online at home and at work. Maybe all of this media consumption is doing something to our brains, though the jury is still out. Whether you agree or not, and whether you’re wrapped up in technology or not, when you take a step back, it’s truly amazing to consider the stream of constant information available to us at any given moment. From images of oil spills to constant interruptions and clicking on links, it can be hard to know how to take it all in.

Add to that the business of daily living, and the distraction of modern life only grows. No matter what stage of life we are in, there are so many demands on our time. Family, friends, work, food, church, health and exercise, and doing the daily tasks of running a household all contribute to a never-ending to-do list. Just about everyone feels too busy, too squeezed for time to be able to get it all done. It’s no wonder we can get so easily distracted as we go in so many different directions. It’s no wonder we so rarely have the time or attention span to spend on that which would truly feed our souls.

Distraction, it seems, is one of the big spiritual challenges of our time. But it’s not a new one, unique to our technological age. Distraction was a spiritual problem at least as far back as Jesus’ day. In today’s Gospel we have a classic example of distraction: Martha, that famous archetype of a busy woman, who toils away to complete all the work that goes into having Jesus over for dinner. Understandably she’s resentful of her sister Mary, who sits idly by Jesus’ feet rather than help with the work. Martha complains to Jesus, who basically does not come to her rescue.

These two sisters have been pitted against each other for centuries, as if we are to follow the example of one over the other. Perhaps you’ve even been asked if you’re more of a Mary or a Martha. Time and again this story has been interpreted to mean that Jesus valued prayer and the contemplative life, represented by Mary, over and above the active life of Martha. Mary’s holy listening has been seen as spiritually superior to worldly work.

But Jesus never told Martha not to do the chores. Instead, he zeroed in on the fact that she was so worked up about the work at hand that she was distracted. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;” he said to her, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” Martha was so distracted that she could not recognize the presence of the Son of God in her midst and stop for a moment to soak that in.

Martha ran into the same problem that we do as chronically distracted people. Like her work to welcome a guest that day, there is nothing inherently wrong about the work we have to do or the stream of information that comes to us. But there is a problem when all of those things get in the way of us seeing God in our midst, in real time, because God is here. Right in the middle of our to-do lists, right in the midst of constant interruptions via technology, right in the middle of when we feel overwhelmed. If we let it, this world can distract us from God. But if we’re careful, that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s a matter of focus and how we see things, of where we put our attention. For example, technology isn’t necessarily the enemy of the spiritual life. If we look carefully, God might just be at work in social media, helping us to be more connected and creative.

Jesus called Mary’s choice of listening at his feet the “better part.” It’s a vague phrase, but I think he’s pointing to something fundamental to all of us. Part of what makes us human is our spiritual hunger. We crave room for contemplation as much as that constant input of information or getting our work done. We are hungry for a bit of silence, a bit of listening once all the computers and TVs and radios are turned off. We crave those moments with the holy that remind us of who we really are as children of God.

Martha was in danger of missing such an opportunity in the midst of her busyness, and the same is true of us. The good news is that what Mary chose, that better part, the ability to stop for a moment and soak in God’s presence, can happen in even the most distracted of lives. The story of Mary and Martha is a reminder that we need to tend to that part of ourselves that goes deeper than the distractions. Every now and then we need to stop and practice holy listening, and experience something that truly feeds us. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you

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