This sermon is my last at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield. My three years as Base Chaplain and Chapel Life Director end next Wednesday. It’s been a blessing to have this ministry of Word and Sacrament. Sometimes a military chaplain can become so involved in field or administrative work that we forget we are priests and ministers. Indeed, some of us no doubt seek out military ministry to get away from the daily grind of charge or parish, but in that grind is our vocation, whether we want or, sometimes, don’t. So as I told +Peter, my Bishop, I am thankful that my three years here reminded me almost weekly that first and foremost I am a priest of the church.
Preached Sunday, 21 July, Christ the King Chapel, Crown Village of Ralston, AB. Lections For The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost (C): Genesis 18:20-23, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10: 38 – 42
“Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10:41)
I sometimes wonder if, had I been born several decades later, if I would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, as so many young people are today. I often find it difficult to concentrate on just one task for an extended period of time, and find my attention splintering as my mind flits from one thing to another. I get bored with a task quickly, and find myself working, often ineffectually, on several projects at once. I couldn’t say if this condition is be aide of some deficiency or chemical imbalance in my brain that might be treatable, or if is simply because I live an increasingly complex world with a surfeit of distractions. Since I have been fairly high-functioning and achieving for most of my life, I suspect it is the latter.
Technology and psychology writers have suggested that there is a link between our devices, such as smart phones, and brain processes that work like addiction. Take something as simple as checking your smart phone or tablet for new messages. Every time you check and find a new email or tweet or text, your brain’s pleasure centre is activated and dopamine, the chemical associated with curiosity and reward, is released, leaving you craving the next reward of a new email, and thus driving you back to your phone every five minutes. Certainly this has been my experience of technology, and my observations of people using technology in public places seems to suggest that I’m not alone.
Seeing as I am composing this sermon on my iPad, I am not going off on an anti-technological screed. I’m a fan of technology. Technology enables us to be more produce more, to communicate more, and to learn more, which can all be worthy goals. However, technology leaves us susceptible to a narrative that our culture wants us to buy into. That narrative convinces us that we need to multitask, to do and produce more with less, to want more and to fill our waking moments with work and pleasure. The price of living according to that narrative is the splintered self, our identities pulled between a host of different priorities and demands.
What I am calling the “splintering” of the self into shards of attention and focus is a condition that is hostile to spiritual well being. The great religious traditions use words like balance, centring and presence to describe a healthy spiritual state. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the scriptures often point us to the need to be intentional about focusing on God’s presence and on our relationship to the divine. Psalm 46:10 famously says “Be still and know that I am God”, the psalmist reminding us that stillness, our setting aside of our worries and fears in a worrisome world, is necessary if we want God to be our “refuge and strength” (Ps 46:1).
In her commentary on today’s gospel reading from Luke 12, Elizabeth Johnson observes that the Greek word used in Luke 12:40 to describe Martha, periespato, is often translated as “distracted” but it has the sense of being “pulled in all directions”. Commentators and preachers talking about Martha and Mary often get mired in discussions of gender and women’s work. As Johnson reminds us, the story isn’t about whether Mary is right or wrong to take the non-traditional posture of a male disciple listening to Jesus, or whether Martha’s tradition al role of service and hospitality is less valuable. Instead, she suggests, Martha’s state of being pulled apart and distracted by her work and her sister’s choice leave her resentful and unable, as host, to be fully present for the guest under her roof (compare her role as hostess to that of Abraham as host in our first reading from Genesis).
In his response to Martha, Jesus mysteriously says that “there is need of on,y one thing”. I think Johnson is right that we can read this statement not as Jesus’ rebuke of Martha, but as his invitation to her. “The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God.”
In our gospel reading from last Sunday, the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10, we heard of one man who chose the one thing, who chose to be fully present to the divine by being fully present for another. The Samaritan’s care for the other is not only remarkable for his generosity and sympathy, but also for his selflessness. We don’t know what busy errand the Samaritan was en route to, but whatever it was, he set it aside long enough to be fully present in service to another. The men who didn’t stop, the Priest and the Levite, may well have decided that their business in Jericho was so pressing and so important that they had no time to stop. I have sometimes heard it said of the Priest and the Levite that they didn’t stop on religious grounds, for fear of contaminating themselves with blood and becoming ritually impure, but what if it was as simple as they felt they were too busy, too distracted by their self importance?
The famous Darley and Batson experiment (1973) created an artificial sense of busyness and a sense of hurry in seminary students, and then observed their willingness to help a stranger slumped on the ground. The researchers found that a sense of “hurriness” in their subjects contributed to their unwillingness to help the stranger, even when one of the tasks the subjects were rushing to complete was a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan! Had the researchers known the Greek term, they might have substituted Luke’s perispateo for “hurriness”.
As I write this, I am very much aware that I could be doing a dozen other pressing things related to a relocation and winding down a busy job. I confess my thoughts are much distracted by these pressures, and I certainly feel that right now I am a poster child for perispateo. The only solution that I know of is to focus on “the one thing”, on Jesus and his word that I will share with others tomorrow, and on my relationship with the other, wherever I meet them. I know that for me and you, life will continue at its crazy pace. Technology will continue to be a blessing and a curse as we continue to live and work at that pace. We will continue to feel perispateo, pulled in many directions, like Martha. The only way that allow us to manage, to escape being pulled deeper and deeper into the cycle of our distractions and its call to selfishness, will be for us to also find moments like Mary, to be still and sit with Jesus, and remind ourselves of the one thing, of our call to love him and our neighbour.
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