Anxious and Distracted
A sermon Preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, MN
July 21, 2019
Proper 11, Year C
This past Wednesday evening the search committee for the new Director of Children Youth and Family ministry and I were meeting at the church following the first of four finalist interviews when the buzzer for the church door rang, and someone, a member of our committee, jumped up to see who it was. A man who identified as homeless needed a place to use the restroom, and probably to escape the stifling heat and humidity for a moment. He was let in and the story was relayed back to the group. We were about to be done with our meeting and the last people in the building, so as the staff person responsible with closing up, I went to wait in the hall for our guest to reemerge from the restrooms, to ensure he didn’t need anything further, and most of all, to be honest, to be sure he didn’t somehow wander further into the building.
We’ve had, over my eight or more years here, a few instances of uninvited guests sleeping in the building overnight. I had safety and liability on my mind. I sat in the hall waiting, foot tapping, frustrated to be missing the end of an important meeting, my mind racing around and around thinking of all that needed doing and wondering how quickly I could get the man back out the door. In my hastiness a mantra was bouncing in my head – “Get him out! Get him out!” The man finally reemerged and I apologized for having to ask him to leave. We were closing up shop for the night and about to lock up, and alas he couldn’t stay here. I wasn’t really sorry. Get him out! Get him out! He shared with me that he was homeless and on the street, and was there any way we could help him out? After hastily asking if there was anything he needed, rushing to get him some food to go, I quickly escorted him to the door, hoping I hadn’t missed anything too important from the search committee.
The meeting wrapped up a few moments later and our group dispersed. As I drove down Kent I noticed one of our committee co-chairs, Patrick, stopped in our parking lot speaking with the same homeless man, who hadn’t made it very far. I pulled over to see if I could help, and Patrick shared that they were just getting to know one another, sharing names, and Patrick was listening to how the man had felt first welcomed and then very quickly and inhospitably pushed out the door. It stung to hear it, but the man was right. Some of us had indeed welcomed him, and then I had been so hasty to dismiss him. I could hear, or rather feel the echo of my unconscious mantra – Get him out! Get him out! – and I was understandably ashamed. As I drove away I began to look inward, what was it that had kept me from treating this man truly as a “thou”, a person, another child of God worthy of dignity and respect and attention, instead of an “it,” an inconvenience, an interruption?
And then my mind returned to this week’s lessons with their themes of welcome and hospitality and I considered the gospel with Jesus’ rebuke, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” So often this reading is caricatured as a moral lesson about being versus doing – fussy Martha distractedly doing all of the tasks of hospitality while Mary serenely sits at the feet of Jesus, being in the moment with him. I say this is a caricature because the scripture around it resists this simplistic interpretation. Only last week, in the verses preceding this lesson, Jesus gave us a moral example of neighborliness, the story of the Good Samaritan, a story that consists almost entirely of “doing” and not “being.”
In this morning’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis, Abraham is hurriedly engaged in the work of welcome, doing his best to rustle up bread and meat for his divine visitors. No, this is not a story about “being vs. doing.” Rather, it is a lesson about what often stands in the way of connecting our being with real and meaningful doing – what barrier most often exists between contemplation and action, between prayer and practice. If we are to read Jesus’ words to Martha as a rebuke, then it is a rebuke not for doing the work of hospitality, but for the anxiety and distraction that blind her from the true work of hospitality, from seeing the guest not as a task needing to be addressed, but as the very in-breaking of the Divine presence. I need his rebuke too.
It was this distraction and an underlying anxiety about my own effectiveness and success as your leader that were somehow at work for me this week when I valued being in the room where the work was happening over being in the presence of a stranger in need, when I pushed him out the door, and yielded to my unconscious mantra “Get him out!” It is this same distraction and the many underlying anxieties, fears of rejection, fear of change that strangers bring, fear of the unknown, that keep us, the church, from being about the work of Christian hospitality and Christ’s welcome. We have confused at times the work of distributing name tags and bulletins, the many tasks and duties of a program, with the deep work of seeing and noticing – that in each stranger who crosses our threshold we are being given an opportunity to draw close to and spend time with the very presence of God. When you scoot over in your pew and invite a newcomer to share your space, when you cross over to the person standing alone at coffee hour and introduce yourself, you are noticing the face of God, and entering into the most sacred of places, into the presence of Jesus.
What’s more, it is distraction and anxiety that are a part of a terrible and destructive system of a wider world that keeps us from being reconciled, by God’s grace to one another!
Thomas Merton, the great mystic, writes:
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.”
It is distraction and anxiety that play out in our own culture, when so many among us reject and push away the immigrant, the asylum seeker, and those whose religion and race are not Christian and white. Anxiety and distraction – fear of the unknown and the other, fear that there won’t be enough, and being distracted by our own selfish pursuits, our own ambition and greed, our own pride and ego drive us to reject the stranger, dismiss the poor, and avoid the victim. Not much divides the mantra in my mind “Get him out!” with a crowd chanting about an immigrant, “Send her back!” Fear and distraction.
So it is that we must address what distracts and blinds and that of which we are most afraid, so that our being, our prayer, our presence, might propel us into a more fearless and a much clearer action. As we prayed at the outset, “Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask,” so that we might do what is courageous, and compassionate, and loving.
As Benedictine Joan Chittister writes:
“We cannot be too busy, too professional, too removed from the world of the poor to receive the poor and sustain the poor….To practice hospitality in our world, it may be necessary to evaluate all the laws and all the promotions and all the invitation lists of corporate and political society from the point of view of the people who never make the lists. Then hospitality may demand that we work to change things.”
And, change starts within us, in the hard work of seeing and noticing, of watching, praying, and being, but always with an eye toward what is beyond us, to the neighbor, the stranger, the visitor, and the guest. One of our longtime members is always reminding me, perhaps because I most of all need this reminder – that in the church we are about the ministry of interruptions. To get to a place where this could be true most of the time, I’ve needed words and mantras different than the ones my distracted and anxious mind can so easily invent. I’ve turned more than once to prayer and one in particular from Night Prayer in the NZ BCP, which we sometimes pray during Compline:
It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.
By Gods gifts we can work toward the change necessary in ourselves and in society that we would feed no more on the bread of anxiety but might offer the bread of hospitality to all and in so doing we might entertain angels unawares!