Sunday, July 17, 2022
WORRIED AND DISTRACTED BY MANY THINGS
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
July 17, 2-22
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. That line just leaped off the page at me this time around. That could be like many of us that’s the story of my life right now. This July instead of being a quiet time is instead one of intense activity. So many things are going on at St. Paul’s that all need attention.
The warning sign for me was last Sunday morning. I arrive at 6:50 as usual and unlocked the building to start the morning preparations for two services and a meeting with the disaster preparation team in between the two services. By 7:15 I was wondering where Jaime was. So, I put on a pot of coffee for the 8:00 service and went to open the church up. Now normally Jaime does all that stuff. Unlocks the building, turns on the lights and sound system. I texted Jennifer and asked her about Jaime and she replied, “No he’s off today. I’m pretty sure I told you.” I’m sure she did but it was probably one of those times I’m at my desk focused on something else and she probably told me and I’m sure I said, “Oh OK.” Without really paying attention to what she said. I’m sure we’ve all done that.
As I rushed to get everything going, I went up to get the video set up for the livestream and missed one critical click of a link. That resulted in the livestream going to a Facebook page that only Jennifer and I have access to, instead of to the group page. That’s why those who turned in didn’t see the live feed. I fixed it after the fact and people were able to watch it. I also had a memory lapse on the memorized gospel at 8:00. However, when I make a mistake like that it is telling me that the Martha in me is distracted and worried about many things. Especially for me it’s distracted and out of balance.
Distracted from what is essential. Distracted from being present when I am engaged in a task. This is as epidemic in our society as COVID. We’ve all seen the distraction. How often do we have a computer, a tablet and a phone all calling for our attention not to mention a real live person in the room? As I’m writing this my email keeps telling me (You’ve got mail look over here.) At times like this I just need to shut every other program down and write. Yes, there are some important emails there, meetings to schedule a donation to be received, but I need to write. They can wait an hour or two.
The true link here hit me as I read the Message translation. Peterson translates v 42 as, “One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it-it’s the main course and won’t be taken from her.” Notice he does not use the word better but uses the word essential.
So what is the essential that Mary has chosen? The essential is Jesus. It really is that simple. Mary has chosen to make Jesus the essential part of her life, the focus of her life. This passage is not about being Mary or Martha, but that the essential in all our lives is Jesus.
Now all of us have some Mary and some Martha in us, but when one loses the focus and goes all to one side, then the problems begin. This is not an either-or message but a both and. This is not that service is bad and the contemplative life is good. This is not about which is more important. What is essential is the focus. In this case the focus is on Jesus.
The point is that a ministry that feeds us, that helps us to grow flows first and foremost from a relationship with God. When we are focused on being doers, we forget the why behind what that we are doing. I keep pushing us to ask the question why we are here. The answer in part is that there is a huge difference between doing good and doing good in the name of Christ.
The world is full of good social agencies. Secular humanists do wonderful humanitarian work because they believe this is how a civilized society lives. They don’t need to believe in God to know that allowing people to go hungry while others have more than they need is wrong.
Richard Rohr founded his center and carefully chose the name. It’s the Center for Action and Contemplation. It is an ecumenical center that trains people in contemplation, but only as a means to inform and support action in the name of Christ. He teaches that you really can’t do one and not to the other. A good prayer life supports what we do, in God’s name.
An edition of Weavings magazine had a wonderful article on today’s passage. The article written by Jan Johnson was Finding Guidance in the Rhythm of Contemplation and Action. She speaks of being a Mary who had to get acquainted with her Martha. The problem with the Martha’s of the world is this. “Compassion fatigue is inevitable because we weren’t built to run on our own power but on the companionship and guidance of God.”i She speaks of learning to be either a contemplative activist or an active contemplative, depending on your preferred style, but that we have to embody both.
This for me is the attractiveness of Benedictine spirituality. Benedictine spirituality calls us to blend prayer and work into one so that all work is prayer. Here is how that plays out in my own life.
I was with a mission team from St. David’s in Ashburn Virginia on a trip to Honduras. We were helping build a bathhouse for the El Hogar orphanage. We were at the basic construction stage and being Honduras, the building was going to be made out of cinder block. When I arrived, we were starting to make the foundation. In Honduras there is no such thing as pre-made anything. A good concrete foundation requires reinforced concrete. What greeted us was piles of 12-foot lengths of half inch rebar, a stack of quarter inch steel bar and lots of thin wire. My team’s assignment was to make the rectangular reinforcing structure from these raw materials. My portion of the job was to take the quarter inch steel and form the rectangular boxes that the larger pieces of rebar would be wired to. There was one of these 2×3 inch rectangles about every three inches. The bathhouse was about 30 foot by 20 feet. These reinforcing structures also went around every door and window so you can imagine the vast number of these that had to be made.
My tools were a wooden form with three nails and a tool made out of scrap rebar that looked something like a small crowbar that allowed me to bend the steel. I stood under a tree and began to make these. This was incredibly boring. Then the inspiration hit me. I began to use the prayer that I say as I do my prayers in the morning with my rosary. Soon I was in a rhythm and to my delight found myself in a very peaceful place. Every ten rectangles or so I would stop and say a prayer for the boys who would soon use this bathhouse. Sean O’Keefe then the head of NASA was standing next to me and asked me what I was doing. I told him and he joined me in that rhythm of prayer and work made one.
Now think of the difference this made. We were praying for all the boys that would be served while we were making the foundation for the building. Every piece of metal that went into that structure had been soaked in our prayer during those three days. The magnitude of that hit me as I watched the fresh concrete poured over that reinforcing rebar structure once they were ready to go. They disappeared from sight, but they were there and so were the prayers of the makers.
I do believe that this shows what it means to keep Christ at the center of service. What had started as a day of mind-numbing work became a day of communion with Christ.
Jan Johnson in her Weavings articleii gave several great suggestions on how to keep your focus on Christ as you go through the week.
Reflect before serving:
Before you start your service or work, stop and pray for a moment. I do this before entering a hospital room, meeting, church service, just about anything I do that is ministry. I ask God to put me in the right frame of mind and to help me pay attention to those to whom I will minister.
Work slowly enough for nudges to be noticed
If we do not slow down enough for the gentle nudges we get from God, we miss opportunities and eventually the gentle nudge becomes a sledgehammer. In my Honduras experience it was being mindful of the call to pray as I worked. If I had just plunged in, I might have missed that opportunity.
Be present while serving
Focus on the work you are doing. Stay in the present and practice the ministry of presence. Be there with the people you are serving or working with at that moment. Pay attention.
Reflect after serving
Take time at the end of your time in a particular ministry or at the end of the day to reflect on the experience. St. Ignatius suggests that you do this each day. Go through the day and ask where God was present in each of the moments or interactions of the day.
Confess negative feelings and reactions
Sometimes ministry or work brings us into conflict with the people we serve or with those we serve with. Sort out where these feelings come from and why you are experiencing them.
Call out for God’s help
If you find yourself in over your head. Then ask God for help. Remember we do ministry with and for Christ. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
Celebrate with others
Enjoy and celebrate your ministry! That may seem obvious but celebrate your successes and your victories. Celebrate your failures because at least you tried. Learn from them and move on.
The rest of us can learn from this model as well. Do what we do in Christ’s name, not in our name. Christ is the essential.