Sermon preached July 18, 2010

Text: Luke 10:25-42

Distract: To cause to turn away from the original focus of attention or interest. Distraction: Something, especially an amusement, that distracts. (American Heritage Dictionary)
A recent commercial that illustrates distraction well is a commercial for Corona beer. Corona is usually served with a lime in the top of the bottle – I have no idea why. The scene is a couple on sitting side by side on beach chairs looking out at a sandy ocean beach. In between them is a small table with an ice bucket and two Coronas with lime in the top of the bottle. The focus of their attention is the beautiful sand beach and ocean waves, that is, until a distraction comes by in the form of an attractive woman in a white bikini. We see the man’s head turn as the woman walks by. We see the woman seated next to him take the lime from the top of her beer bottle and squirt the man. Distraction. Corona commercial
Two times in the gospel for today, in the second story, we hear the word “distracted.” “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” Jesus: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” I don’t know about you, but I sympathize with Martha. The picture that often comes to mind when this story is read is a picture of Jesus, perhaps with a small group around him, engaging in conversation. Among the group is Martha’s sister Mary. Martha, while this engaging conversation is happening is preparing a meal or getting beds ready for guests to sleep – doing the things that a good host does. She begins to resent Mary’s inattention to hospitality, and asks Jesus to send Mary to help. Instead, Jesus seems to put Martha down a bit – calling her worried and distracted. Don’t you kind of feel for Martha? But then as I read the story more closely, there is no specification of the work that Martha is doing. Maybe the meal is already prepared, and Martha is just one of those people who can’t sit still, even when it would benefit her.
Distraction here is not a compliment, but then it seems that not all distractions are created equal. That really struck me a few weeks ago when I was reading this chapter in Luke devotionally. This story of Martha and Mary and Jesus follows directly after the story of the Good Samaritan, and I read them together because I don’t usually associate the stories in any way. Together they seem to say that not all distractions are the same. The good example in story 2 is Mary who stays focused on Jesus. The good example in story 1 is the Samaritan whose focus was on getting to Jericho, but who became distracted by a wounded man on the side of the road. Not all distractions are created equal, it seems.
We live in a world where distractions have multiplied exponentially. When Jesus takes Martha to task for being too distracted, how many opportunities for distraction could there be – no telephones, automobiles, movies, television, computers, i pods, cell phones. What was there to be distracted by – sheep, sand? Even then, distraction could be an issue. How much more for us.
The other night I was flipping through some channels and came to Turner Classic movies, which was showing a silent film called “Speedy.” This 1928 film starred Harold Lloyd, who was trying to save his girlfriend’s fathers business, the last horse drawn trolley in New York. Babe Ruth, the baseball player has a cameo role. He needs a taxi ride to the stadium, and Harold Lloyd gives it to him, except Harold – “Speedy” is so taken with his passenger that his driving suffers. He is so distracted that he nearly collides with other cars or people, much to the chagrin of the Babe. Distractions were multiplying.
Recently I have also been watching some of the Ken Burns Baseball series. One of the things that has amazed me are descriptions of the game that are over 100 years old. “In baseball, all is lightening” – Henry Chadwick. [Baseball has] “the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere” (Walt Whitman). These days, baseball, to many, seems slow, ponderous, rather dull, not filled with zip, or pop or zap, go, or fling.
I share these cultural anecdotes simply to remind us how much we have to be distracted by – when the flashing distractions of 100 years ago are now seen as too slow. Distraction is a problem. We can lose our focus on what is most important. It is true for individuals and for churches. And in the church we can be distracted from what is most important not only by what is new and glitzy, but also by what is all too familiar. When we keep doing what we have been doing simply because we have been doing it, then that can be a distraction from what is most important, from listening to the voice of Jesus for our lives and our times, and seeing where the Spirit of God might be taking us. We need to focus on our core values, even as the means for realizing those values may change.
Yet if being distracted can be a problem, and it can be, so, too, can our inability to be distracted. Mary’s singular focus in one story is held up for admiration, while the narrow focus of the priest and Levite in another story are held up for ridicule. In our lives and in our church we need to balance focus with a wide angle lens, not lose our peripheral vision for sometimes what is on the edges needs to grab hold of our attention. There is a place in our lives for being appropriately distracted.
Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher, once wrote, “We are fed or damaged spiritually by what we attend to.” If our attention is too scattered, we are damaged spiritually. If our attention is too narrow, we are damaged spiritually.
Psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Our lives need the rhythm of focus and appropriate distraction, of looking and overlooking.
There are times in pastoral ministry when it seems that it is difficult to get focused work done. Take up a project in the office, and the phone will ring off the hook, or the office door will swing open constantly. Part of the learning of being a pastor is to recognize that the phone calls and office visits are appropriate distractions, are a necessary and vitally important parts of the work of being a pastor – except when the calls are simply solicitations!
From my office I have a beautiful view of Lake Superior, though there are days when that view waxes and wanes with rolling fog. Even then, there can be a certain beauty. Is this view a mere distraction? Sometimes, maybe. Other times that view centers me. I am reminded that God’s grace and love are as vast as waters of that grand lake. The sun gleaming off the waves, a full moon setting the surface ablaze, both fill me with awe and gratitude. Lake Superior, for its beauty, and for many other reasons, should be the object of our attention. Its well being matters, yet it is easy for we who live on its shores to keep it on the periphery and lose sight of it.
Paying attention to dreams can be a distraction, but ever an appropriate distraction? In the Talmud, one reads, “an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter from God” (Eigen, Conversations, 93). There may be something to be found, at least at times, in paying attention to our dreams. Over the past year I have been paying some attention to mine. Recently I dreamed I was digging through sand in an unusual sandbox. I am on my knees and the box is stomach high with sides that are somewhat buried. It is almost as if the sandbox was constructed of an old dresser of some kind. The sand is dark and dirty and in some places it is very wet. The project is to remove this sand to empty out the box. The old sand will not be discarded but mixed with new sand and put back in the sand box. I keep digging. Not a remarkable dream, but there is in it a sense of some things that have been happening in my life, and also a sense of what I think we need to be doing as a church. In my own life, I have been digging deep into wounds and joys and mixing these in with new experiences.
For our church, as we move into the future, we need to look deeply into who we are and what we do and figure how to build on the best of our past as we also welcome what is new and reinvigorating. We can be distracted by the past. The task is to build on it, focus on our values, yet listen to the voices on the edges of the future.
Not all distractions are created equal. In the Spirit of Jesus, may we learn the art of the appropriate distraction. Amen.