The headless chicken epidemic
preached at THE ANNUNCIATION BRIGHTON in July 2010 (text: Luke 10.vv38-42)
Do you remember the fad for joke T-shirts with a picture of Jesus on the front and the warning words: “He’s coming -look busy!
I find this quite funny - not for the reason they intended, mild sacrilegious shock value - but because whoever thought the words up has demonstrated total ignorance about Christ and His expectations of us.
The last thing He would want if the Second Coming happened tomorrow would be for us to look busy.
“Looking busy” is the sort of thing some people in the bank I used to work for had developed into a fine art. You know, get in early, jacket off, run round clutching files looking keen and make sure you’re seen to be the last to leave. That was enough to impress the mediocre middle management, even if you produced very little, or very poor quality, actual work.
It wouldn’t be enough to impress Jesus. We don’t fool Him for a minute in any detail of our lives.
So He won’t want us to look busy. And you know what? I doubt if He’ll be particularly worried whether we are in fact busy either.
Lord, do you not care that my sister Mary is leaving me to do the serving all by myself?
And what does He say? “Yes, go on Mary, you lazy thing, stop lounging on the floor and get up and make yourself useful”?
Not a bit of it. What He actually says is Martha, stop fretting. Mary has chosen the better part and it is not to be taken from her.
I suppose we really ought to get custom-made T-shirts saying “Jesus is coming - sit quietly at His feet and listen.”
But now I'm going to get to the tricky bit. “Hang on a minute” I can almost hear you thinking “It can’t be quite as simple as that. Someone’s got to lay the table and do the washing up. Someone’s got to make the effort to earn the money to put the food on the table. We can’t all be Marys. We’ve got to have some Marthas. (Somebody’s got to clean the church and make the coffee after Mass.)
In fact, come to think of it, was Jesus being really being fair in rounding on her so sharply? Wasn’t His own life the supreme example of hands-on practical service to others?
Yes, it was - up to a point. But the reason He is so critical of Martha is because He is exaggerating in order to make us stop and think. And the same exaggeration is needed today because of the spiritual mess our confused, hyperactive world is in.
Somehow we’ve got ourselves trapped in a lunatic 24/7 non-stop activity culture. Why?
Well, it’s partly because we have become the slaves, rather than the masters, of computer technology. Way back in the 1970s, pundits predicted that speeding up communications would give us more leisure time to enjoy.
Completely the reverse has happened: because things can be done ten times faster, we find ourselves in a rat race to do ten, or even eleven or twelve, more things in the time that has been freed up.
I believe I heard that the average lunch-break (if any) now taken by British office workers is down to 13 minutes. Probably an energy drink, some sushi and a desperate fag by the ash can outside.
My mind harks back nostalgically to a day years ago when I was driving into the French city of Rouen at lunchtime and looking for a parking space near the cathedral. I found an empty meter bay and was scratching around for change until I read the small print on the meter: free parking between 1pm and 3pm. Would you believe it? To allow for a generous and unhurried luncheon!
But it’s not all the computer’s fault. There is also a more sinister underlying element of guilt-feeling. We have been brainwashed by a revival of the “Protestant work ethic” into thinking that there is some innate virtue in busyness.
People talk threateningly about survival of the busiest in the so-called “law of the jungle”.But this metaphor is totally misleading.
TV schedules are saturated with wildlife programmes which portray nature as “red in tooth and claw”, a night and day industry of hunting and killing. And yet any biologist or zoologist will tell you that nature is very different, and much more boring, off-camera.
Their research confirms what is obvious to any domestic cat owner. Ellie and I have a beloved portly British Blue Margot, who was described by her breeder, quite accurately I have to say, as an “animated hearth-rug.”
Margot's big cousins, the lions lie sprawled for 12 hours a day, then sleep it off at night. So, you will find, do most wild animals.
Humans are the ridiculous exception. “The devil finds work for idle hands” was the watchword of hymn-writer Isaac Watts.
No, Mr.Watts. The devil is more likely to find work for busy hands. Because the more you are caught up with targets, productivity, deadlines, meetings and reports, the more stressed you become and the less room there will be for God in your life. God cannot enter your heart and your mind unless, like Martha’s sister Mary, you sit quietly at His feet and wait, listening for His word.
Yes, Mary has chosen the better part.
But what about poor old Martha? She seems to be the scapegoat, if you like, in the moral Jesus was drawing. Just as I have been having a pop at free-market capitalism.
Jesus knows perfectly well that Martha has the best of motives. She too wants to serve Him in her way and He loves her for it.
It’s just that she won’t pause for breath. You can see her, can’t you -bustling, over-eager, red cheeked, hospitable. Help, the saviour of the world has dropped in! What have I got in the house? What could possibly be good enough for Him? Why doesn’t Mary lift a finger? I’ve only got one pair of hands!
Oh Martha. The answer is simple. One plain dish will do perfectly well. What’s the point of fussing over the tablecloth, plumping the cushions, folding the napkins if you’ve got the chance for a precious hour or two to learn eternal wisdom from the lips of the very one who is the way, the truth and the life?
Martha was a faithful disciple. But she had let her priorities get out of order.
There can be easily be over-busyness in our lives as disciples. Communal worship must give space for God, silence, stillness. Prayer must be unhurried, waiting on God, sitting at His feet and listening for His presence, not bombarding Him with requests. He knows what we and others need before we even ask. The Our Father, as He taught us, says it all. And anyway, as S.Paul points out, the Holy Spirit prays in us - if we allow it - making groaning noises which are more articulate than the most polished intercessions.
But let me leave you, as is always best, with the example of Jesus Himself.
Yes, He gave a lot of practical help to many people whom He met and His preaching diary was exhausting. But don’t forget, in those brief three years of ministry, He repeatedly gave over hours on end to sit quietly on His own waiting on His heavenly Father, while the disciples fretted about the crowds and the tight schedule.
And how did He start that short three years? By going on retreat in the desert for six weeks!
Some of us are called to be Marthas - to bustle, to be “pro-active” - some of us are not. But we are all called to be Marys and, if we are so busy we cannot find time to sit quietly at the Lord’s feet, we are lost.
For it is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.