Year C, Proper 11
July 21, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…Mary has chosen the better part.”
We mostly all know this story, right? Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus come up in both the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John. This story, Mary and Martha hosting the Lord in their home, is one of the most referred to of the minor stories in Luke. By that I mean most offered as a truism in relation to a real world scenario. “Mary did choose the better part…” You’ve heard that, right? When it comes down to a choice between prayer or work, what do we hear? “Mary chose the better part.” I personally haven’t heard it here so much, but I have certainly heard this whispered as an excuse to not join in whatever dishwashing effort was going on. (“I’m not here to fiddle in the kitchen, I’m hear for the Word of God.”) Hmmmmm… I have actually heard that said in that very context. I am not confident in that interpretation…
I had quite a Mary/Martha moment when I lived in Portland some years ago. I was interning at a large Unitarian Universalist parish right in downtown and we had a prominent preacher from New York flown in as part of the stewardship launch. It was a big church, 1000 people on Sundays. Our guest was the late Reverend Dr. Forrest Church. (He was the son of Senator Frank Church of Idaho, righteous defender against FBI and CIA evil-doing). The son, Forrest, is still widely read in Unitarian circles. The best line of his is something like, “tell me about the god you don’t believe in and chances are that I don’t believe in that god either.” Good stuff.
Dr. Church came to Portland and we had a fancy dinner planned for major donors at the home of the senior minister. I picked Dr. Church up at his hotel and brought him to the senior minister’s home before any of the guests were to arrive. She (the senior pastor), the associate minister and a couple of staff people were busily at work in the kitchen getting the final touches on dinner, and I was out in the parlor keeping Dr. Church company and, if I recall correctly, also keeping him in gin until the guests arrived. He was quite a legend at that time, and as a first year seminarian, it was a pretty primo gig to entertain the good pastor while absorbing the wisdom he so readily dispensed.
Well, it seems that I miscalculated roles a bit. While I sat at the feet of the Rabbi, playing the role of Mary, being what I thought was the dutiful jr. host, keeping the guest of honor occupies, the senior pastor, the senior host, was fuming in the kitchen that I had not taken on more of a Martha-ish role. That led to the first of several difficult conversations over the course of that year. Several formative difficult conversations. Fortunately I was a merely first year UU seminarian, meaning that I didn’t know enough Bible to have quoted the Mary and Martha story back to her and demonstrated the irony of her ire. That would not have gone well.
What is this little story about. That it is better to listen to Jesus than do whatever else? Sure. In this particular instance, with Jesus right there in the room, yes, of course listening to Him is the better choice. Martha could have called for Chinese take out or something and then joined Mary on the floor.
But this is well before Jesus is talking about His inevitable sacrifice and death. This situation is not like the references to the bridegroom found in each of the synoptic gospels. In those references He is saying “stay with me now, for soon I will be gone.” That is not the tone Jesus is using with Martha. There is something else here. What might it be?
The idea that listening to Jesus is the most important thing to have done in that moment, that is solid. That makes sense. But if we read the passage carefully, it would seem that what Jesus is saying in not that being busy is problematic, it is the fact that Martha was so “…distracted by her many tasks…” “Distracted” is the operational word. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That, Jesus says, is what Mary is doing, she is focused, she is in the present moment, which at that moment, was at the feet of a rabbi.
We are all so very distracted. Our minds, our imaginations take us all over. In meditation circles this is often called “monkey mind”. Think of a troop of monkeys traveling through a stand of trees. The activity of it! So much movement, so much whooping and hollering, not a still bone in lot. Our minds are so often the same, well, mine is. And when we are in that swirl, our minds can travel far and wide in time and space, into the nether regions of nostalgia and fantasy, and into, most often, into the world that Martha is in in this story, the swirling clouds of busy, busy, busy.
Distraction. Distraction is one of the hallmarks of modernity. Everywhere we go bright, shiny, jingly things are dangled before us, begging for our attention (not to mention our money). Everywhere we go, from the radios in our cars, computers on our desks, televisions in how many rooms of our houses? From the bill boards along roadsides, on the top of cabs, on the sides of trucks, all over businesses… Just think about your approach to the cash registers at any grocery store. We are bombarded with sensory input that overwhelms any chance of equanimity. From covers of Cosmopolitan designed to inspire lust, to the overly-lurid scandals perpetuated if not fabricated by the gossip rags, to the 300 different options offered to get high fructose corn syrup or half a daily recommended amount of salt and saturated fat into your body, we are engulfed. And let’s not be self-righteous, it is not just the conventional markets that behave this way. Distraction is profitable, because being distracted, we no longer have the ability to make sound decisions based on the value systems we have developed in times of quite thoughtfulness. Like the idea of not shopping when hungry.
Our attention is even being clamored for from our pockets. Who here has a cell phone? Right. Phone, texts, email, Facebook, Twitter, and there must be others… the modern universe is contained and is accessible from your pocket or purse. Everywhere you go you can be connected to such a vast sea of distraction as has ever been conceived of in human history. Simply that everywhere you go you can be contacted… That alone is an existentially distracting imposition into our lives. And it is not doing any of us any good.
When Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part…” He is affirming that being focused, being un-distracted is the preferable way of conducting ourselves in the world. This is not a lesson against multi-tasking. As any parent of young children (or of formerly young children) can authoritatively testify to, life requires multi-tasking. Cutting carrots, putting the rice cooker on, stirring the beans, listening to piano practice, wiping a runny nose, and feeding the cat in a span of 3 and a half minutes is about par for our pre-dinner time. Now, that could be a nightmare scenario (and it sometimes is), it can be a Martha moment of distraction, it is sometimes that, too. But we can also do those very same actions steadily, methodically, mindfully even, we can do all of that at once without negative metaphysical consequences, but we can only do one thing at a time, though we can do those things in a rapid and fluid sequence. This is living un-distractedly.
Cut the carrot. Cut the carrot. See the runny nose. Put the knife down. Pick up the tissue. (OK, let’s be honest. Try to find the tissue, then get a piece of toilet paper, put on the grocery list to get tissues), wipe the nose. Pick up the knife. Say “nice job” about the piano. Cut the carrots. I am serious. This is a very basic practice of mindfulness. Whatever you are doing, do that. Then do the next thing. Then the next thing. Then the next.
I am serious about this. I remember the first time I mindfully brushed my teeth on a retreat. There are a lot of steps in tooth brushing. Pick up toothbrush in right hand. Reach with left hand to turn on water. Move hand towards water. Rinse tooth brush. Turn water off. Pull hand back. Put down toothbrush. Lots of steps and that has not even gotten us to the complications of toothpaste!
Distraction is poison to the good life. It is inevitable that we will encounter it, and not only because of Twitter feeds buzzing in our pockets, we’ve been dealing with this forever. So here’s a challenge. When you brush your teeth tonight, try doing it mindfully. When you are squeezing the toothpaste, squeeze the toothpaste. When you are turning the water on, turn the water on and don’t be thinking about the next fifteen things you need to do before you go to bed. Do what you are doing when you are doing it. That is choosing the better part, don’t take that away from yourself. AMEN