The Pace of Change
Last Sunday began a six-week sermon series titled “Life Change: Encountering Jesus.” This sermon series looks at bible stories that provide revelation in how our lives change when we encounter Jesus. Quaker pastor and author, Richard Foster, writes “to be in the presence of God is to change.”i To be in the presence of God is to change.
This morning’s gospel story presents us with two characters; they are sisters, Mary and Martha. Now, we do this bible story a disservice if we arrive at the simplistic conclusion that sitting still is automatically better than being busy. In fact, the gospel story that immediately precedes this one is the parable of the Good Samaritan. And the Samaritan is the hero of that parable precisely because he stepped up; he acted in ways that demonstrated the mercy of God.ii
So I want to suggest that this morning’s story is not a simplistic indictment against busyness; but rather, a warning about a lifestyle of busyness that results in internal feelings of anxiety and external expressions of impatience and resentment toward others. [repeat]
You’ll see a place for sermon notes in your program this morning. So, I’d invite you to consider for a moment, on a scale of one to ten (with 1 being the least and 10 the greatest), “to what degree do you feel a sense of inward peace and calm?” And perhaps, using that same scale, to what degree (again with 1 the least and 10 the greatest) do you have the patience you’d like to have with those around you when they don’t do what you wish they would? Friends, our inward anxiety and dis-ease is projected through impatience with, and criticism of, others. When we are overly focused on busyness – when our balance between being and doing gets out of whack – we become impatient and critical of others.
But it is hard… because we live in a culture that glorifies, one might even say worships, busyness. We are encouraged to live our lives eking out every last ounce of productivity, filling up every minute with activity; driving on spiritual fumes, so to speak, and in very real danger that we will spiritually sputter and breakdown.
About 15 years ago, I ran my car out of gas. It was a beautiful spring morning. The night before I hadn't wanted to stop for gas on the way home because it was late and I was tired. So I resolved to leave sufficient time to fill my tank in the morning. That was the resolution I made in the car. But, I'd forgotten my resolution when it came time to set my alarm. It might not have mattered anyway because getting out of bed, for me, is about the toughest thing I have to do all day. I am not a morning person. Now, I left for my first appointment of the morning right around the time of my appointment which, understandably, made that appointment run late, which, in turn, made my second appointment, which I had scheduled closely on the heels of the first, begin late. My tardiness was further exacerbated by all those slow drivers with whom I grew increasingly impatient. Didn’t they have anywhere important to go? What was wrong with them? As I drove along, I frequently and nervously glanced at the fuel gauge needle. It was below "E" and well into the red. But, I reasoned, I had been there before and I'd never run out of gas. Underestimating the amount of time my second appointment would take – do you see a pattern emerging here – I had to leave before that meeting was over so that I could get to my church in time for – you guessed it – the next appointment. Besides, what was wrong with those people that it took them so much time just to make a decision? “No wonder meetings run late,” I thought with a sense of irritation. I phoned my secretary to ask her to let the person I was meeting with know I was on my way. While I was on the phone, I heard my first little sputter. But, it was brief and the car seemed to quickly recover and, "after all," I reasoned "it was downhill almost all the way to my church." Almost would be the operative word in that sentence because, as my car reached the first of about 4 level blocks it needed to endure before its destination, it gave one final sustained sputter and came to a halt.
I called my secretary again asking if she might be able to round up a gas can and come to my rescue. While I sat and waited, I considered the source of my problem. There were no margins in my day; not a single spare minute. My problem, after all, wasn't really a lack of gasoline. I’d passed stations that morning. "Never had I run out of gas before," I falsely assured myself. These were important appointments, all of them; and I had so much to do. And, so I rationalized that I could somehow cheat the laws of chemistry and make my gas burn longer. I could just keep going and never run out of gas… until I did.
You know, one of the things most interesting in this morning’s story is that Martha is fulfilling the role of hostess, the provider of hospitality. But if one really thinks about hospitality and what it involves, we recognize that good hospitality means attentiveness to our guest; focused, undivided attention. Yet, when Martha drags Jesus into this little family feud, she’s concerned for herself, not for Jesus. She’s placed herself in the limelight. And she is frustrated, angry and resentful toward her sister. Her irritation gets expressed through judgment. Now Jesus’ response reveals that he has perceived the root of the problem and it is not about busyness or idleness anymore than my problem was about gasoline. The root of Martha’s problem is that she is distracted, anxious and troubled. In fact, the word translated “anxious” can imply someone seeking to promote one’s own interests. Martha has used an opportunity for gracious hospitality as an occasion for self-promotion. As one author puts it, “When anxiety in well-doing becomes the measure of our hospitality, then we have forgotten the One whom we have gathered to serve.”iii
Folks, when we fly through life always busy, always doing, we are in danger of losing our perspective. It becomes about us – what we’re doing and how hard we’re working. Our own good deeds become a form of idolatry and a stick we can use to beat others who do not measure up. We become frustrated, impatient, angry and resentful toward others. But that is not what God wants for us. Jesus wants us to choose something better for ourselves. Jesus defends our human need to sit at his feet and listen to his Word; to give the word of God our undivided attention so it can change our hearts and minds. Did you know that the part of our brain that allows us to multi-task is actually developed by quiet, focused time? And in fact, our ability to multi-task declines with increased multi-tasking. We see evidence of it on brain scans. God made us, folks, and God knows what we need to live lives that result in inward peace and outward harmony in our relationships with others. And what we need is quiet time spent in God’s presence, listening to God’s Word. God’s grace made known through his Word can change us into something other than frazzled and stressed and impatient with ourselves and others.
“So how?” you might be asking. Well, I’m going to quickly give you a couple of suggestions this morning and, if you want to know more, come to Sunday School next week because each Sunday of this sermon series we’ll be looking at scripture and going deeper into spiritual practices that bring change to our lives.
So, here we go…
As Lisa plays a verse of the hymn “Near to the Heart of God,” I would invite you to look at the second question printed in your program and consider, “What one change can you make to your daily living to create time and space to ‘sit at the feet of Jesus’?”
i The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. Harper Collins. 1988 edition; page 24.
ii Luke 10:30-37
iii Paraphrase of Cynthia Jarvis from Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 3. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 266.
iv Referenced in Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, page 15.
v Ibid, p. 27.
vi From the book Gravity and Grace.
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