Love in the Time of Distraction

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” two central characters fall in love in the first pages. The young Florentino and Fermina carry out an ill-advised romance. When her father finds out, Fermina is rushed away to live with family in another city. But Florentino writes to the young girl, and their relationship continues.

At one point in the romance, the young Florentino proposes marriage. Fermina, hesitant, asks for more time. Florentino sends passionate letter after passionate letter asking for her answer. Finally she responds, with a note scribbled on a scrap of paper from a school notebook: “Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.”

In the novel Florentino is the hopeless and hapless romantic. Fermina ends up a pragmatist, so much so that she does not marry Florentino, but instead chooses a young doctor. She doesn’t feel the same passionate love as Florentino, at least not at the degree he feels the burn. So she chooses Dr. Urbino and knows her future will be secure. Plus, her father approves.

This balance of the romantic and the practical features strongly in our Gospel text this morning. Mary and Martha, the two sisters with very different viewpoints. Some of you heard me preach a sermon earlier this year, where I wondered exactly how Mary was different. If Mary was alive today, would we diagnose her? Would we say she was on the autism spectrum? Or had a learning difference? Textually, I’m not sure you’d be far off in exploring that possibility.

If so, it makes Jesus’ words this morning radical. If Mary was intellectually different, it would also make his decision to take her side pretty characteristic, pretty Jesus-y. This was the guy who told adults to act like children. He ate with outcasts. He spent time with lepers. He told the people to take care of the poor. Jesus conspired with women. It seems very in character for Jesus to tell a disciple that her intellectually different sibling has chosen the better part. Jesus points us to unexpected teachers.

I have to confess, I do feel quite a bit for Martha in this story. We do a lot of hosting at our house, which both Ellis and I love to do. But I know well that the last moments of meal preparation, after the guests have arrived, can be a stressful time. My inner Christian feminist wants Jesus to stand up and continue the conversation as he helps Martha and Mary in the kitchen.

This morning, though, I want to take a slightly different tack. The traditional interpretation of Mary and Martha is allegorical. The sisters are taken as representative characters who stand for different ways of approaching Jesus and the world.

Jesus is invited into the house of Martha, the sister of his friend Lazarus. Martha busies herself with preparations. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. She listens to his words. Martha, not listening, barges in and tells Jesus to reprimand Mary. Make her help me, she demands. Jesus responds, “you are distracted by your many tasks. Mary has chosen well.”

Now, there is a danger in an allegorical interpretation. We could try and simplify this reading and say simply, “Be like Mary, not like Martha.” You need more contemplation and less action. Prayer is what Jesus wants, not work. That’s tempting, especially in summer when we try and keep church and sermons a little shorter. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

I think the allegory here is not in contrasting the two sisters quite so directly, but rather looking at that word “distraction.” Jesus does not assume that Martha is wrong. Action is not unnecessary. Jesus wants his dinner, after all. He doesn’t say that she has chosen badly. He says simply: “You are distracted by many things.”

When we pull away from the binary, wrong verses right, Mary vs. Martha, and we hear “you are distracted by many things,” the Gospel might get a little less comfortable. I know it does for me. How easily could Jesus say these words to me? In fact a spiritual director or two of mine *has* said these words to me. “You are distracted.”

We live in a world that is full of distraction. The satyrical newspaper “The Onion” carried a headline a few years ago proclaiming “Americans spend 90% of their waking hours staring at glowing rectangles.” If you think about it, it’s frighteningly close to true. Now, I’m no luddite. I’m not going to say we need to trade in all of our technology, but I do wonder whether our media environment means we are more and more prone to distraction. How many of us feel phantom vibrations even when our phone isn’t in our pocket?

We have gone from a society where precious few were constantly “on call,” doctors, policemen, firefighters, to a world of smart phone owners who are never free from work. I worry that such distraction can be toxic to our inner life. Prayer, relationship with God, takes cultivated attention, and we give a lot of our attention away. Did you hear about Pokemon Go this week? The game is addictive. I’ve been playing. So has Ellis. It is fun, one you can quickly lose hours of your life and huge amounts of phone battery. But the game can be a little worrying. People are so distracted staring at their phone screens and virtual reality that they’re walking into objects, and getting robbed in actual reality. You’ve got to have some balance.

Can we make mindful decisions about how to interact with our devices? A priest friend recently told me that he has decided not to look at social media before 10:30 in the morning. He was in the habit of waking up and looking at his friends’ posts before he even got out of bed. He discovered that it was often making him anxious before his day even started. He decided instead to read the Bible or some other spiritual writing right after waking up. He says it has helped him get grounded in the early morning. He can save news and opinion from his social networks, which can be distressing, until he is more fully awake.

Several years ago my sister encouraged me to challenge the default mode, to change my settings around email. She set up her email so that she COULD access it on her phone, or on her computer but so that neither device would give her a reminder for every message. The default setting with a buzz or ding for every email was just too much, so she changed her way of interacting. In her words, “I want to check my email, I don’t want my email to check me.”

For some of you, the smartphone and Facebook are not your distractions, but I bet you can fill in some blank.” I would have more time for prayer, more time for silence if only I spent less time doing ____” The responses I shared from my friend and my sister are, I believe, creative ways to engage a world that offers constant distractions. Jesus’s words to Martha are a reminder, we are the stewards of our time.

We are the stewards of our time. Think back on your last week, your last month. Another way to think about Jesus’ teaching this morning is to ask yourself. Are my priorities reflected in the way I spend my time. Is my time showing what matters to me? If we are going to find time for prayer, time to read the Bible, time for meditation, time to share a meal with a loved one, time to reach out thoughtfully in service, we have to overcome ever multiplying distractions. If it was true for Martha, how much more true are Jesus’ words in our own day?

Distraction obviously exists on a personal level, but it has social resonances as well. How often are we distracted as a society? As I watch the political cycle these days I am troubled. How captivated are we by bluster and bluff? Are we asking political candidates questions of substance? Are we too content to be distracted by sideshow antics? There are social justice ramifications when we become distracted.

To illustrate this point fully, I have to stop avoiding the prophet Amos. Our reading this morning is really bleak, and just wait for next week. Amos wasn’t what you’d call a “Feel Good” prophet, a prophet like the Isaiah we read near Christmas. This is no “comfort comfort ye my people.” Amos vividly prophesies death and destruction.

In these next weeks as we read Amos, know that there is a direction to Amos’ lament. At the end of the book, the people *will* rebuild the ruined cities. God’s justice will return to Israel. But Amos’ words today are intentionally confrontational. Amos is trying to get his peoples’ attention. He is trying to rise above the distraction.

The Israelites have become so distracted by the pursuit of wealth that they are willing to defraud and enslave. They’ve been so distracted by wealth, they are asking God, “When will the sabbath day be over, so that we can get back to trading.” They even say that they want to “buy the poor for silver” in the words of our text today. Do they not hear their own words?

It is little wonder that God tells them to be silent. It is little wonder that the famine Amos prophesies is a famine of hearing God’s word. The people have been so caught up in *doing*, they haven’t reflected on their actions. The people have stopped taking time to listen for God’s voice of justice, to remember their story, and to reflect. Action without contemplation is dangerous.

You need both action and contemplation to follow Jesus. One without the other can be ineffective and yes, it can be dangerous. But balance is possible.

At the end of “Love in the Time of Cholera” Fermina and Florentino do get together, in the later years of their lives. She has had a reasonably happy marriage. He has had many lovers. But when Florentino discovers Fermina has become a widow, he courts her again, and they argue about whether to renew their relationship. Eventually he writes her another letter. She reads it:

“It was a calm letter that did not attempt to do more than express the state of mind that had held him captive the previous night. It was as lyrical as the others, as rhetorical as all of them, but it had a foundation in reality. Fermina…read it with some embarrassment because of the shameless racing of her heart.”

Coming together in old age, Fermina and Florentino balance one another. The romantic has become more measured. The practical woman who just didn’t want any eggplant in her marriage has a heart that will race.

In love as in the spiritual life, we need to balance both poles, the contemplative and the active, the romantic and the practical, Florentino and Fermina, Mary and Martha. As whole people can we pay attention to Jesus in prayer and in deed? We live in a world that is hurting. Can we focus on the One who yearns to bind up the broken, to make all of creation whole? Can we learn to let go of some of the distractions and follow Jesus?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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