Traction and Distraction

I was walking on campus a few days ago, just here behind the chapel, when I saw a small group of people huddled together on the path, looking around anxiously and glancing back and forth at their phones. It looked like a father and two daughters, and as I approached them I could hear the father say, “Well, I don’t know, where is it?” Now I had been at Sewanee for a little less than 48 hours, but when I see someone who looks lost, it’s hard for me not to try to help them. So I began to move towards them, silently praying that they might be looking for one of the three buildings I knew how to find. But as I got closer, I saw one of the daughters grin like a girl on Christmas morning. She beamed up at her father, “It’s the little green one, isn’t it?” she said to him. And it was then that I knew. This wasn’t a prospective student and her family looking for the admissions office; this was a family playing Pokémon Go.             

If you haven’t heard the news this week – like, for example, if you’ve been stuck under a rock or if you’ve been a part of the Sewanee Church Music Conference and therefore spending roughly 17 hours a day singing or registering service music – there’s a new game that’s sweeping the nation. No, check that, there’s a new game that has swept the nation, and it’s called Pokémon Go. Pokémon Go is, according to Wikipedia, a “free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game.” Translated that from Silicon Valley speak, that means that this game takes the view through your phone’s camera and superimposes a virtual reality overtop of it. The player’s job, then, is to use their cameras to hunt down virtual creatures in the Pokémon world. So you’re using your phone to look at the bike rack outside of McClurg dining hall, for example, and suddenly there’s a little green one, or a Pikachu, or a whatever-its-called looking back at you. It is, apparently, addictively fun.

It is also, apparently, pretty darn dangerous. People playing this game have been staring at their phones and then walking into stuff all week. Players have been stepping off of curbs and into intersections, ramming into people and even, in at least one case, ramming their car into a tree. On Thursday two Pokémon Go-ers were so intent on capturing the little green guy that they actually walked right off a cliff. The all-consuming pull of the smartphone has reached a whole new level with this new game. Pokémon Go has created an entirely new definition of distraction.

Martha, as far as we know, did not have a smartphone. There were no little green ones lurking in the corners of her house, and she wasn’t looking at anything except the work she had to get done. But she was still hopelessly distracted. She and her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus were friends of Jesus’ – new friends, perhaps, as this is the first time Luke mentions Martha in his Gospel. Jesus and his disciples have just rolled into town, and Jesus needs a place to rest for a while – a soft cushion, a home-cooked meal, a quiet room to pray and sleep. And Martha is a good person, a faithful Jew. She knows the importance of hospitality, and she’s happy to offer it.

And so she gets down to business. There is cleaning to be done, and bread to bake, and blankets and rugs to air out. There is water to draw and a goat to be milked and the fire to stoke and keep hot. She’s working hard; she’s in the zone, firing on all cylinders, and everything is going smoothly…until she notices her sister, Mary, doing absolutely nothing. She’s sitting on the floor with Jesus, doing nothing – just listening. Well, Martha thinks, that’s fine, I can probably get this done faster without her anyway. But the longer Martha sweeps and kneads and milks and sweats, the more animated the conversation becomes in her head. What is Mary doing, she thinks. Has she not noticed me swirling around the house like a cyclone? I mean, it’s kind of obvious that I’m killing myself here – would it be too much to ask for her to pick up on the fact that I need a little help? No, no, it’s fine, she can listen to him, I’ll do it all myself. I always do it all myself. Always me. Always poor Martha, cooking and cleaning and, you know, tending the livestock – as if I wouldn’t mind sitting around with my feet up eating bon bons every once in a while. But no, I’ll just keep working, because if I stop, well, then what happens? The house gets dusty and the milk will turn which is disgusting and who would want to live that way anyway and why, oh why, Lord does it always have to be me that does everything for everybody except for myself?!

Okay. So perhaps I exaggerate just a tiny bit. But we know that in this moment Martha is troubled. She is, as Luke tells us, distracted by her many tasks, so distracted that she finally approaches Jesus and asks for his help in getting Mary to pitch in. Even in the asking, she is so distracted that Jesus, looking up at her flushed face, chooses to say her name aloud. Not once, but twice. Martha, Martha, he says, trying to really get her attention. Martha, Martha, look at yourself. You’re dis-tracted, literally “pulled apart” right now. Take a breath, and take a look. See what is right before your eyes – your sister, Mary. She has chosen the better way.

Now just to be clear, I don’t think Jesus means only that sitting still was the better way. I don’t think that he means doing nothing but listening is the only way to be. This story can easily be read as a recommendation of the contemplative life over and above the active life, but I don’t think that’s entirely what our Lord was getting at. After all, generations of Christians have been pretty darn active and pretty darn faithful at the same time. Ora et labora, St. Benedict reminds us, prayer and work, and those Benedictines seem to be doing just fine.

No, there is more to the story here. The better way that Jesus is talking about is the way of being not-distracted, not pulled apart. It’s about listening and being present no matter what you’re doing. Martha’s problem isn’t that she’s doing something. Martha’s problem is that she’s doing one thing but she’s thinking about something else. She’s looking at the world, but she’s seeing only her own worries superimposed over the view. She’s pulled apart, living in two places at once. Her attention is divided, and so she misses out on seeing the holiness that is all around her. She misses the beauty of the goat’s milk glistening in the bowl like silk. She overlooks the miracle of how a little yeast leavens the whole loaf. She doesn’t smell the sweetness of fresh air as it blows into dusty rooms, doesn’t hear the music in the rise and fall of Jesus’ voice. She is distracted, and anxious, and worried, and she misses the presence of God that is all around her.

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I, too, feel like I’ve just missed it, times when I feel like I’ve spent the entire day looking at one thing but seeing another. I feel pulled apart, by my work or my worries, or by the world’s bad news. You and I can be distracted by many things. You are getting older and your body doesn’t work the same anymore. You have just received a diagnosis that makes your heart beat fast with fear. Your marriage is stuck, or your family is distant, or your faith has gone dry. You live in a world full of dangerous creatures that pop up out of nowhere with terrifying frequency and tragic results. You and I can be distracted by many things. And when we’re distracted, we tend to make bad decisions. We become short-tempered and unforgiving. We act out of fear instead of hope; we look for vengeance instead of mercy. We expect scarcity instead of abundance. We see neighbors as other instead of as sisters and brothers, and we start walking around this world around ramming into each other or stepping off of cliffs. We get pulled apart, and we tend to try to pull the rest of the world apart with us.

But this day, in this still and holy place, hear our Lord speaking to you, Martha. Martha. Choose the better way. Choose me. Look to me, whatever you are doing. See me superimposed over all of the cares of the world. Listen to me with a still, present, and open heart. Find traction for your soul in me. For I am never distracted. You are always first on my mind, when you lay your head down at night and when you blink your eyes open in the morning, and all of the hours when you sing inbetween. You are always mine, and I am always drawn to you. So choose the better way. There is need of only one thing. Look for me with your whole heart. Listen to me, that you may live.   

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

17 July 2016

All Saints' Chapel, Sewanee, Tennessee 

Posted on July 22, 2016 .