Last Wednesday was just one of those days. The church’s website went down. And then our emails did too. What we had hoped would be a small glitch turned into a very big problem. And then I tried to go home on the M104 bus. The first bus that came was so packed I couldn’t get on. The next one was also very crowded, but I made it. Unbeknownst to me, the power had gone out on the subway system and every line in the city was affected. It was hot on the bus and people were on edge. And you know New Yorkers – some of them were very vocal. Every time we came to a bus stop, an older man near the front would yell: “Don’t stop anymore! There’s no room for anyone else!” Behind me, an argument broke out. Someone had left a box by the rear exit. People were asking whose it was. A seated woman eventually answered that it was hers. When some passengers asked her to move it or hold it on her lap, she adamantly refused. That meant that every time the bus stopped, a woman with the two children had to step out of the bus to let others pass before should could reboard the bus. People began to yell at one another. I closed my eyes. “Be calm. Stay focused. You’ll be home soon.”
But I wasn’t home soon. The hot bus crawled up Broadway. I arrived at home just in time to take Ella to the vet. The streets were very crowded and it was very hot. I was concerned that Ella would get stepped on. Suddenly, a large group of singing kids completely surrounded us. I walked faster to escape them, inadvertently startling another dog who was tethered to his owner’s walker. This dog lunged at Ella, dragging the walker behind him and scaring himself half to death. I called Marcos to complain. Lucky him! “Stay calm,” he said. “Stay focused.”
I dropped Ella off at home and then ran out to the grocery to buy a few things. I made my way to the cashier, paid my bill, and then tried to leave. But my left foot was stuck to the floor, by a huge wad of neon green gum. I eventually unmoored myself and limped home, sticking all the way.
Well, by the time I put the bags down on the counter and took off and cleaned the offending shoe, I was something less than you might imagine your pastor to be. Glorious streams of swear words seemed to be on the tip of my tongue. I felt completely done in - disconnected and overwhelmed. And then the next day, there was the horror in Nice. It was all just too much.
Now I know from experience that the very best thing I can do when I feel overwhelmed is the be still; to take a break; to be quiet. The problem is that that is what I almost never do that. Instead, I speed up. I try to conquer chaos by moving faster than it does. The theme song of the Netflix hit series “Orange is the New Black” captures my very human dilemma perfectly. Singer/songwriter Regina Spektor sings: “Think of all the roads. Think of all their crossings. Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.”
And don’t we know it. Standing still can seem like complicity or disengagement. And so we have breaking news alerts on our phones. We lie in bed at night and send work-related emails. We shop online while watching TV and chatting with a friend. We walk in the door and turn on cable news. Multiple studies have indicated that multitasking is not good for us, and yet we are addicted to it. Our lives are filled to overflowing with chatter and gloom and advertising and speculation and fear. “Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.”
Jesus and his disciples entered a village called Bethany, where two sisters named Mary and Martha lived, along with their brother Lazarus. These three were Jesus’s BFFs. They were very close. Because they were in town, Martha invited Jesus and company to come over for dinner. And Martha was the same kind of host that I am – a nervous one. Neither Martha nor James can enjoy a glass of wine while chatting and leisurely preparing a meal. Instead, Martha clearly saw all that needed to be done. What she didn’t see was her sister Mary, who should have been helping her, but instead had assumed the posture reserved for me by sitting at the feet of the Teacher. “Who does she think she is?” Martha grumbled. To make her discontent known she slammed pots and pans. She banged drawers. She made those dramatic sighing noises. When no one asked her what was wrong, she finally broke protocol and pulled Jesus into the argument: “Lord, don’t you even care that my sister has left me with all the work? Tell her to get off her lazy behind and get into the kitchen!”
Traditionally, this story has been interpreted to imply a kind of spiritual hierarchy between contemplation and action. In that interpretation, contemplation and listening to Jesus is at the top of the heap – the thing more important than anything else. In that interpretation, Mary is the one who made the right choice. Martha should have put down her spatula and joined her sister.
The problem is that that kind of broad interpretation doesn’t make sense in light of the rest of the Gospel. After all, the story that directly precedes this one is the parable of the Good Samaritan – a story about doing the right thing; a story that ends with the words “Go and do likewise.” So Jesus cannot be disparaging the practical aspects of ministry like making and serving food. So if Martha’s activity is not the genesis of her problem, what is?
Well, Jesus tells her what it is and does so in a way that she can hear. He employs a rhetorical device called a “conduplicatio” – meaning that he says her name twice, implying compassion and tenderness. In other words, Jesus is not judging her. Jesus understands her. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” And that worry and that distraction were the problem. Mary, on the other hand, was centered and focused. She was focused on Jesus.
We don’t talk as much as we should about focusing on Jesus, but we should. Come to the average progressive church and what you’ll hear a lot about is being busy and doing God’s work in the world. You will hear frustration and anger and heartbreak at black people being shot in America’s streets, and the rise of intolerance, and the specter of fascism, and global warming, and the curse of terrorism. No wonder we are worried and distracted by so many things. No wonder church can become a source of that worry.
But what do you suppose would happen if we simply stood still, at least for this one hour a week? What do you suppose we might hear if we purposefully focused on Jesus Christ and his gracious words? In a city that never sleeps; in a country afraid and divided; in an increasingly chaotic world, would what we hear from Jesus make a difference in us and thus in our sphere of influence?
In the days before his crucifixion, when the storm clouds were gathering and the disciples were afraid, this is what Jesus said to them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Taking steps might be easy, but it is not always what we should be doing. Standing still is hard because it feels like we are doing nothing. But standing still and focusing on Jesus and learning his words is what makes taking steps meaningful and effective. Contemplation and action, piety and justice walk hand in hand. So, if you really want to work for Jesus, if you really want to love your neighbors, and model peace and promote justice and stand against evil - then stand still long enough to listen to what Jesus says.