Proper 11c, July 17, 2016

July 18, 2016


Luke 10:38-42


38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”


I’m not sure when the concept of multitasking became a common way for us to describe the way many of us are inclined to behave, but I think it has become a familiar concept. We’ve sort of accepted it as a legitimate form of behavior, but is it possible to watch a movie, send and receive texts, do homework or office work, and shop online at the same time? It used to be that you had to be in one spot to watch a movie, you had to have a pen and some paper to write a message to someone, and you had to get in the car to go shopping, but that is not the case anymore. You can watch a movie, communicate with friends, and order anything in the world without getting off the sofa. Luckily, the combination of texting and driving is becoming as taboo as drinking and driving, but we do a lot of device manipulation while we’re driving, and I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to multitasking.


If my wife didn’t stand up and shout amen, it’s a testimony to her incredible personal restraint. She’s not as convinced of my ability to do two or three other things as I drive as I’m inclined to be, and I think this may be the one area where she’s right.


I think there’s probably a lot of mythology about multi-tasking. I read one person describe the phenomena of multitasking as less of an ability to take care of several things at once, and more of an exercise in giving partial attention to several different things. Multitasking isn’t a form of extra-efficient behavior. Multitasking is the practice of providing continuous partial attention.


And while our amazing new electronic devices have opened up tremendous new opportunities for multitasking, the truth is that it’s always been possible to provide partial attention to a variety of different things. You haven’t always been able to watch videos of grandchildren during slow sermons, but it’s always been possible to split our attention between what we want to be doing and what we aught to be doing.


This is not to say that there aren’t some good reasons to do more than one thing at a time. I can tell you that the parsonage yard is much more likely to get mowed on a regular basis because I can listen to a book while I’m riding a mower and operating a weed-eater. Multitasking has made some tasks much more bearable, but one thing I have learned is that I can’t think and listen at the same time. If I’m engaged in any kind of activity that requires me to figure something out – I have to hit the pause button on my book. If I’m listening to my book I can’t add or subtract, and if I find myself thinking about what I’m doing I lose track of what’s going on in my book. I can only listen to a book when I’m engaged in some kind of mindless activity, and there is evidence that I spend a lot of time engaged in mindless tasks. There is no telling how many hours of listening I’ve engaged in over the past few years.


I’m pretty sure my brain pretty much does one thing at a time, but it can jump from one thing to the next with remarkable agility. My attention level can be pretty shallow, and I don’t think I’m alone in this way. In fact this is clearly an old problem. What we see so well illustrated in this story from Luke is this problem of being distracted by many things – of being overly focused on the wrong things and oblivious to the most important thing.


This is what Jesus identifies as Martha’s main problem. Martha was a multi-tasker – she was trying to be a good host, and she was probably trying to listen to what Jesus was saying, but she was primarily thinking about how irresponsible her sister was being. And she built up enough righteous indignation about what she thought her sister should be doing that she actually tried to enlist Jesus to join her in her criticism of her sister. I guess this story is a perfect portrayal of the way we can be so wrong about what is most important. And it serves to remind me of how wrong we can be about what we think other people aught to be doing.


Last week’s story of the Good Samaritan emphasized the need for us to spring into action at the right moment. This week’s story reveals the importance of knowing when it’s time to sit down and do nothing but pay attention. This business of following Christ is tricky. Sometimes we need to take action. Sometimes we need to stop and listen. We probably don’t ever need to insist that our siblings behave in a particular way.


I don’t know about you, but it’s much easier for me to identify with Martha than with Mary. I’m much more familiar with the problem of being distracted by many things than I am with the joy of engaging in the one needful thing. I’m not so much like Martha in that I get worked up about what the other people who are close to me aught to be doing – I’m usually too confused about what I should be doing to be overly clear about what anyone else needs to do. But I share in Martha’s tendency to be distracted from what’s most important. I rarely have the clarity she had for what her sister should be doing, but I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how I should spend my time and energy, and this usually turns in to some form of multitasking – of giving continuous partial attention to many different things.


One of the joys of that bicycle ride I made to the east coast two years ago was the opportunity to be single-minded for an extended period of time. For twelve days I didn’t have to think about doing anything other than how I was going to get myself from one spot to the next. My job was to keep my body operating, to stay on the right road, and to watch for cars. It wasn’t perpetually joyful – there was a little misery and tedium, but it was so nice to step out of my multi-tasking routine. I didn’t have to check email or answer the phone if it wasn’t someone I wanted to talk to. I had these automatic responses that said I was out of pocket for a period of time and I would get back to them when I returned.


I felt so released from all the different things to which I gave partial attention, and I was focused on one thing. It wasn’t exactly the one needful thing that Jesus talked about, but it was a spiritually enriching experience. I wish I could say I came back from that trip with an entirely new way of approaching life. I wish I could say it put me in touch with perfect focus on that one needful thing, but it didn’t fix me. Maybe I’m a little better. Maybe I only give continuous partial attention to 25 things instead of 50 things, but Jesus invites us to keep our focus on the one needful thing.


I think this story is far more challenging to all of us than the story of the Good Samaritan. In fact, I’m thinking many of us are pretty good at the Good Samaritan thing. We United Methodists are good at being good neighbors. I dare say we United Methodists are as good as anyone when it comes to being good neighbors. We take care of people. When somebody is in trouble we’re pretty good at stepping in and doing what needs to be done. I’m proud of our neighborly reputation, and I don’t want to belittle the value of what we do to help other people, but in some ways it’s easier to be a good neighbor than it is to be a Mary.


This thing Mary did was amazing.


Of course we don’t really know what Mary did. It appears that she really wasn’t doing anything, but Jesus said: she was doing the one needful thing. What is it that Mary was doing?


What Mary was doing is more mysterious than what the Good Samaritan did. What Mary was doing is something less tangible than reaching out to someone in need. What Mary was doing takes equal courage and commitment, but it takes more sensitivity to the presence of God. What Mary did was to override the expectations of her sister, and of her society, and of her peers, and to do what God was calling her to do. Her primary focus was on the expectation of God, and Jesus could see that in her. He could see that she was doing the one needful thing.


It’s hard to say how we can train ourselves to be more sensitive to the presence of God, but it’s not so hard to see how it is that we desensitize ourselves to God’s presence in this world. It’s easy for me to believe that the umpteen things that we fill our days pursuing serve to keep us oblivious to the one thing that could actually satisfy us.


This is not to say that we are hopelessly lost or that our time and place is particularly out of sorts with God. The one needful thing was as illusive to Martha as it is to us. It’s always been hard for people to see through the clutter of their day to the genuine presence of the Holy Spirit, but we do have our challenges. The easy thing is not to be focused on the one needful thing. The easy thing is to maintain partial focus on many different things – including the presence of God in our lives. It’s easy to give God a little bit of attention and to think this is good enough.


And it is good enough if you want to live like Martha – who was someone that Jesus seems to have appreciated on some level. But Martha didn’t really get Jesus. She was so clueless she thought Jesus would join with her in getting Mary to leave what she was doing. Martha wasn’t a bad person, but she wasn’t able to see what Mary could see, and she wasn’t focused on the most important thing.


As I say, I don’t know how we can train ourselves to see what Mary could see and do what Mary knew to do, but I do believe we can become more conscious of how we use our time and to what we give our attention. I don’t believe it’s helpful for us to maintain continuous attention to many different things. I think that probably serves to keep our hearts and minds trained to be distracted.


I also believe God seeks to get our attention. I believe God is present in this world in a way that jumps out at us every now and then, and if we aren’t so distracted those experiences can touch us in compelling ways. There isn’t one way of living that’s necessary. God isn’t calling us to either be quiet or busy. What I believe is that if we are focused on the claim of God on our lives it doesn’t matter if we live as secluded monks or fast-paced executives. I believe if we are focused on the one needful thing we can carry that in to whatever it is that we do in life.


It’s not that there is only one way to live, but there is only one needful thing, and our challenge is to maintain continuous full attention on the source of true life. Our challenge is not to become better multi-taskers. Our challenge is to become committed unitaskers – people who are able to see and embrace that one needful thing.


We can, and by the grace of God we will!




One Response to “Proper 11c, July 17, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Busted Thompson, You got a big multitasker, I need to really focus on the main task more. Thank you for the revelation.

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