The idol of distraction – a sermon

Sunday’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or read here.

Life is busy.  Whether you are working or retired.  Whether you are the parents of small children or your grandchildren are grown.  Whether your iPhone dings with every text, tweet, and email or if your flip-phone is from the early aughts.  Life is busy and seems to be getting busier with every passing minute. This spring, the Johns Hopkins Health Review published an article entitled “The Cult of Busy,” which argued that “there is a global epidemic of overscheduling and it’s ruining your health.”[1]  Recent studies have shown that the ongoing stress of being too busy can actually shrink your brain’s gray matter.  It can lead to depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, and insomnia, and it is ruining our relationships with our spouses, our children, and our friends.  The Cult of Busy is killing us like a frog in boiling water; we won’t notice it until it is too late.

The worst offender in the Cult of Busy, is, unfortunately, our own selves.  Studies show that while Americans feel busier now than ever before, we actually have more free time than previous generations, and parents are spending more time with their children then they did 40 years ago.  The core problem in the Cult of Busy is the powerful idol of distraction.  There is rarely a time when we are able to be wholly attentive to where we are.  External stimuli are constantly vying for at least a portion of our already over-stretched attention. Every restaurant, waiting room, and even gas pumps now have TVs to distract you from what you’re doing; that is, if your phone and the search for Pokémon aren’t keeping you distracted enough.  Being pulled in multiple directions is a key source of stress and creates what researchers call “toxic time,” time that “slips away in an unrelenting concern that we should be someplace else doing something more.”

While the Cult of Busy may be booming in 21st century America, it isn’t exactly new.  People have been distracted and stressed by the pull of expectations since the very beginning.  The Cult of Busy is even at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson which features the Cult’s patron saint, Martha of Bethany.  This story is often told as a way of lifting up the life of contemplative Mary as better than the life of working Martha, but if there were no Martha’s there would be no Altar Guild, no coffee hour, no Family Promise.  Without Martha’s there would be no Church.  No, this isn’t a story that tells us we shouldn’t do anything but sit at the feet of Jesus.  Instead, it is a story about the evils of distraction.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, Martha follows in the footsteps of her ancestor Sarah and sets about the business of making her guests feel welcome.  She likely drew some water for the road weary travels to wash their feet.  Then she got the oven going, preparing to bake some bread for all to share.  Perhaps it was fig season,  Martha would have known that Jesus loved figs, and so she fixed a plate of honey drizzled figs for the good Rabbi.  While she worked, she listened as Jesus taught.  Each time she entered the room with a new plate of olives and cheese, she grew more and more frustrated with her sister, Mary, who was doing nothing but sitting idly by, listening to Jesus.  The distraction of her sister began to gnaw at her.  Martha’s ministry of hospitality, which had started out as joyful, focused work, grew increasingly distracted and annoying.  Pans that were once stacked nicely in the sink started to clang and she banged them around, passive aggressively at first, but in downright anger as the afternoon rolled on.  She was, as Luke tells us, distracted by her many tasks, and finally had enough.

“Jesus Christ! Don’t you care that Mary has left me alone to do all this work?!?”

Her distraction had become overwhelming.  I suspect Jesus knew of her frustration long before Martha’s outburst.  He could smell the burning bread, hear the clanging pots, and noticed as she sighed deeply every time she refreshed the wine.  Jesus had compassion on Martha even as she worshiped the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  I imagine him putting his arm around her shoulder as he said, “Martha, Martha… you are worried and distracted by many things.”  As Luke retells the story, he has Jesus coining a new word for distraction here.  Perhaps he saw that Martha had reached an unprecedented level of distraction and so the regular words wouldn’t do it justice.  The word Jesus used shares the same root as the word for riot or uproar.  Within her soul, there was anxiety, struggle, and even violence, and Jesus knew that this is no way to live one’s life.  When we allow ourselves to become so busy, so distracted, and so worried that our minds become fractured by the many tasks that lie before us, the kingdom of God can easily get lost in the shuffle.

The key to regaining control over time, according to the researchers at Johns Hopkins is, quite simply, do less.  Jesus suggests something more impossibly simple than that.  Jesus tells Martha that “there is need of only one thing,” and that “Mary has chosen the better part.”  Again, I don’t think this admonition to Martha is Jesus setting up the prayerful asceticism of Mary over the diaconal ministry of Martha, but rather, a reminder to all of us that distraction is destructive.  Scholars pull their hair out over this passage because Jesus never tells us what the “one thing” is.  There is no direct antecedent, no further teaching, just “one thing.”  As I thought about this lesson while struggling with the Cult of Busy myself throughout a hectic week, I became more and more convicted that the reason Jesus didn’t have a direct antecedent for his “one thing” is because it isn’t the thing that is important, it is the one.

Jesus did not fuss at Martha because she was engaged in the work of hospitality, but because her ministry of hospitality had become distracted.  She had lost sight of one thing, and was instead distracted by many things.  She was angry with her sister for not helping out; she was frustrated with Jesus for not fussing at Mary; she was upset that there were so many disciples to feed; and she was probably mad at herself for getting so upset.  Mary, on the other hand, had chosen to pay attention solely to Jesus.  She didn’t get distracted by her sister banging the pots and pans in the kitchen.  She paid no mind to the huffing and puffing from the doorway.  Even the smell of bread burning didn’t distract her from the one thing she had chosen to be fully present for: the Son of God sitting in her living room.

Johns Hopkins suggested that we do less.  Jesus recommends that we only do one thing: that we give whatever that one thing is our full and undivided attention, and that we do that one thing to the honor and glory of God for the unbundling of the kingdom.  All you who are Marthas like me can keep on serving at the altar; keep on making sure coffee hour happens; keep on volunteering in the community, but when you do those things, allow yourself to be focused only on the task at hand.  Don’t worship the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  Don’t be distracted by oughts and wants and shoulds, but be fully present where you are.  All you who are Marys can keep on doing the work of prayer; keep on meditating on God’s holy word; keep on listening for the will of God.  Don’t worship the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  Don’t be distracted by oughts and wants and shoulds, but be fully present where you are.  The kingdom of God will grow through the Church when Marthas and Marys each forego the Cult of Busy and give full attention to only that one needful thing, whatever it may be.

[1] Elizabeth Evitts Dickenson, “The Cult of Busy” Johns Hopkins Health Review Spring/Summer 2016 Volume 3 Issue 1. Accessed on 7/14/2016 at

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