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Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life // Fasting from Multitasking and Inattention

If you've ever scrolled Instagram at a stoplight, played Royal Match in class, browsed the headlines at the dinner table, checked your email during a Zoom call, or made your grocery list during a sermon, this is for you.
Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life // Fasting from Multitasking and Inattention

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
February 25, 2024 • Lent 2
Scripture: Luke 10:25-42

This is why I love what comes next in Luke’s gospel: the story of Mary and Martha. When Leah and I planned this series, she paired these two passages. As

I’ve got a large popcorn with light butter in one hand. A Coke Zero as big as my head in the other. I climb into my seat — literally had to climb into it, because the theater was so packed with people. And at the appointed time, the lights dim, and the enormous IMAX screen erupts. I’m instantly transported to the desert planet Arrakis with the likes of Timothée Chalamet, Jason Momoa, and Oscar Isaac. I’m there for the opening night of Dune Part 1 — the film adaptation of the 1965 Frank Herbert book of the same name. Has anyone read it?

And now, in the theater that night, the opening night of an epic sci-fi classic, it was clear that a lot of people had waited a long time for this moment. It also quickly became clear to me that I… was not one of those people. I was there because a friend had invited me. I like a good movie. I went in cold and, admittedly, spent much of the movie lost. I kept leaning over to my friend and asking, “Is he a bad guy?” “What’s happening?” “Is that Zendaya?” I’m sure it was super fun for him. And it was only after I went home and read the plot on Wikipedia that I started to make sense of my many questions.

I’ll be honest. I have forgotten much of the plot. I need to refresh before the sequel comes out in a few weeks. (Anybody want to go with me?) But what I haven’t forgotten is this moment early on in the movie when I got a text message. I saw it come through on my watch and then, super discreetly, slipped my phone out of my pocket and hunched over to respond. And that’s when my seat started to shake — almost like somebody was kicking it. It was a little weird, but I assumed the person behind me was adjusting in their seat and accidentally kicked mine. You know how that happens sometimes. All good. Didn’t think much of it.

But then, a few minutes passed, and I got another text. And, remember, I had very little idea what was happening in the movie. So, I didn’t feel like I was missing much. Again, I pulled out my phone super discreetly and started to respond. And my seat started shaking some more. This… was no accident. This time, it felt aggressive. Someone was kicking my seat. This was clearly intentional, and somebody was not happy that I had my phone out. So I quickly fired off the text, slipped the phone back into my pocket, and kept it there for the duration of the movie. I had all the feelings. I was seething. I was embarrassed. I felt shame. And when the credits started rolling, I stood up and… refused to make eye contact and left the theater as quickly as possible, complaining all the way home.

And now, maybe you haven’t had your seat violently kicked because you checked your phone at a movie theater, but perhaps you’ve scrolled Instagram at a stoplight. Maybe you’ve played Royal Match in class. Or perhaps you’ve browsed the headlines at the dinner table, checked your email during a Zoom call, sent a text while having coffee with a friend, or made your grocery list during a sermon.

Don’t forget the milk. You’re welcome.

And if this is you, then you’re going to love our theme today.

Today marks the second Sunday of the season of Lent. We shared last week that Lent is the forty-day season leading to the heartbreak and hope of Holy Week and Easter. For generations, inspired by Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, followers of Jesus have spent the forty days before Easter in wilderness spaces of our own, doing some good, hard, holy work. The word Lent, if you remember, comes from an Old English word for “lengthen,” referring to the lengthening days that we experience as spring emerges.

And I said this last week: We need Lent. Lent is a sort of spring cleaning for our souls. It gives us the space we need to clean out the junk drawers of our hearts, freshen up our rhythms and routines, and reorganize our priorities so that we might be renewed and turn again toward love and life, hope and possibility, and be made ready for the joy of resurrection at Easter.

And so, to guide us in this season, we’ve introduced a series called “Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life.” And on the one hand, this series names an intention. Since last fall, we’ve been on a slow roll through the Gospel of Luke. And last week, we finally made it to chapter ten. But if, by Easter, we’re going to make it to the cross and resurrection in chapters 23 and 24, we’ll have to seriously pick up the pace. So that’s one way of understanding the word fast.

But also, the practice of fasting has long been associated with the season of Lent. Just as Jesus fasted in the desert, many followers of Jesus have taken on practices of fasting — giving something up or taking something on — as a way of growing closer to God in this season. I love this quotation about fasting we shared last week from the late James Earl Massey:

“Fasting is not a renunciation of life; it is a means by which new life is released within us.”

In other words, fasting is not about deprivation. It’s about preparation. While when we think of fasting, many often immediately think about fasting from food, in this series, we’re particularly thinking about non-traditional and non-physical fasts from things that may get in the way of our connection with God, our relationship with others, and the life, for us, that really is life. And we’re inviting you to practice these fasts, which will, in turn, lead you to embrace something new toward a spacious life of connection, meaning, and wholeness.

So that’s our series for Lent, and here’s our fast for this week: Fasting from Multitasking and Inattention.

But as we begin, let’s be quiet for a moment…

This morning, you heard two stories. The first is commonly called the Parable of the Good Samaritan or, better, the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan. That’s because there’s something somewhat problematic about this story being called “the Good Samaritan,” as if Samaritans aren’t inherently good, and this one in this story is an outlier — an exception.

And here’s how it goes: A lawyer stands up to test Jesus — to ask him a question. “Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, as he does so often, instead responds with a question of his own. “What is written in the law?” he asks. “What do you read there?”

And now, the lawyer has read his Torah — what we might call the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. He responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Straight out of the Torah.

And Jesus says, essentially, “Great. Do that.”

But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. “Jesus, one more quick question,” he starts. “Exactly who is my neighbor?”

And I don’t know about you, but you can almost imagine many others in the crowd that day saying, “Yeah, you know — that’s not a bad question. Let’s put some boundaries on this. Could a little clarity be a bad thing?”

Jesus responds to this question with a story—a parable. Jesus used parables to teach in a way that would come near to those who were listening—stories that may not have actually happened but are true nonetheless. Hearers would have been able to find themselves in these stories—these parables. We are invited to do the same.

In this story, as Jesus tells it, a man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is an eighteen-mile stretch of rocky road, plunging from 2500 feet above sea level at the start in Jerusalem to about 825 feet below sea level in Jericho. It’s a steep, treacherous path.

And Jesus says that this man has experienced just such treachery. He falls into the hands of robbers who strip him naked, beat him, and leave him for dead in a ditch by the side of the road.

As Jesus tells it, a priest — a religious leader — is going down the same road, but when he sees the man, he passes to the other side. And then along comes a Levite, also a religious person, someone who would have a great knowledge of the law, and he does the same thing. He sees this man, beaten, bruised, left for dead, acknowledges the man’s presence, and then, like the priest, also passes by on the other side of the road.

And that’s when the Samaritan enters the scene. And what you need to remember is that there’s no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. It’s nothing but bad blood. To Jews, Samaritans made a mockery of their religion. In the Jewish mind, Samaritans were false teachers who were only capable of leading people away from God’s love. So things are pretty great.

But along comes the Samaritan. And he sees the same thing the priest and the Levite have also seen. He sees the near-lifeless body in the ditch on the side of the road. But unlike the priest and the Levite, the Samaritan is “moved with compassion.”

The Greek word there is splagchnizomai which literally means “a churning of the bowels.” It’s that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re so moved by pity, so moved by compassion, by someone in need, that you can feel it deeply.

It’s the Samaritan who moves toward him, crosses boundaries, bandages the man’s wounds, and takes him to receive care. So Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these was the neighbor?” The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

There’s this famous experiment, maybe you’ve heard of it, that took place at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1973. Two researchers recruited forty seminarians — people studying for Christian ministry — and half were asked to prepare a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the other half were asked to prepare a talk on job opportunities for theology students. Both groups were to give their talk in a separate building across campus. However, they didn’t know that the researchers had hired an actor to pretend to be in distress on the way to the other building.

The actor moaned loudly, coughed a lot, and pretended to be in severe abdominal pain. Each student had to walk by this man on the way to give their talk. The researchers wanted to see, obviously, if the students preparing to talk about this parable would be more likely to stop and assist the man than those simply going to give a talk on career opportunities.

And what they found is that, well, they weren’t more likely to help. In fact, the same number of students, 8 in each group, stopped to help the stranger. Twelve walked on by. Some even stepped over the man. Moreover, they found that the most significant indicator of whether or not the student stopped to help was how much time they felt they had to get to the venue. In other words, they were much less likely to stop if they were in a hurry.

And I share this because this story gets to the heart of the issue when it comes to multitasking and inattention — and that’s that, so often, we too fall into the trap of believing there’s not enough time. Not enough hours in the day. That we’ll never get it all done. And this is when we begin to multitask because there’s always one more email to respond to. One more dish to clean. One more book to read. One more job to apply for. One more paper to write. One more hard conversation to prepare for. One more bill to pay. One more deal to close. One more text to send. It’s never enough.

So often, in our effort to do all of the things all at once, amidst all the demands, we find that a) we’re never fully present for anything. We end up often missing what’s in front of us. And that’s because there’s really no such thing as multitasking. Studies have shown that we can only ever focus on one thing at a time, so what we’re really doing is just ping-ponging back and forth.

b) Even when our to-do lists seem empty, and our heads hit the pillow, we’re still exhausted, overwhelmed, weary, and starved for what we truly hunger for. It’s a vicious cycle.

For many of us, we spend our days trying to check everything off of the to-do list so that we’ll, at long last, experience that far-off bliss of finally being able to relax, only to discover that it’s never enough. It never will be. There’s still more to do. And when we come face-to-face with this discomfort, or any discomfort, really — whether it’s a situation at home or work, outrage at injustice, a project we can’t figure out, grief or shame that we carry, a sense of loneliness — whatever it might be — it’s so easy, then, to reach for our phones and try to flee from that reality. Escape into numbness in a multitude of ways right at our fingertips. The average American, for instance, spends around 900 hours a year on social media. That’s over one month every year. And 1,000 hours watching TV. If hurry is the root of multitasking, discomfort is the root of distraction.

This is why I love what comes next in Luke’s gospel: the story of Mary and Martha. When Leah and I planned this series, she paired these two passages. As recently as this week, I texted her and said, “Leah, are we trying to do too much? Do we really need both? Aren’t we trying to multitask here, ourselves?” But she was unwavering, insisting that we hold them together as one. And she was so right.

Jesus and the disciples continue on their way and enter the home of a woman named Martha. Martha’s sister, Mary, sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to him. Meanwhile…

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:40–42)

I know Martha. I live that reality. Martha’s doing all of the things. She’s doing the hard work of hospitality, while also probably trying to listen to her honored guest. In that day and age, it would have been common and customary for the women to serve while the men sat and listened, receiving the fruit of the women’s labor. And so not only is Mary, as a woman, not even supposed to be there in the room with Jesus, but Martha probably could have used a little help, and it would’ve been expected that Mary would help. So she’s probably a little bitter here, too. I get it. I’m with her.

But instead of helping her sister, Mary crosses this boundary, takes this risk, and sits at Jesus’ feet. She turns from distraction and busyness and finds herself listening, learning, and fully present.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that what Martha’s doing doesn’t matter, that it isn’t important, or that it’s inherently bad. I don’t think Jesus is so much rebuking Martha for being worried and distracted. It comes with the territory. Remember last week: We’re human. That’s part of it. Our lives are full of all kinds of things.

Instead, Jesus acknowledged Mary’s full presence—her attentiveness. There is plenty to do, sure. But Jesus is saying, “But your attention here, your full presence here — your ‘yes’ here — that’s what really matters. That’s what’s most important. That’s what’s going to change everything.”

At one of our sessions last fall, my spiritual director said something to me that I haven’t stopped thinking about. My poor Local Table, they hear it just about every time we get together. But it’s worth hearing again. She said:

We so often glance and glare, but we rarely gaze.

In other words, amid the busyness and hurry and trying to do all the things, we either move quickly like a hummingbird from one thing to the next or, in outrage, our eyes narrow and we glare. But we so rarely gaze. We so rarely stop to look with wonder and attentiveness and expectation. In a culture that tried to tell Mary, “You should be doing something else,” Mary did the hard thing. The radical thing. And for us, in our fragmented, hurried, scattered world, the hard thing — the radical thing — is to offer our full presence.

And this is what Jesus is lifting up. This is what he’s inviting us to do, too.

Because when we gaze, when we stick with what’s in front of us—whatever it might be—when we turn away from distraction and inattention and instead behold with full presence, we open ourselves to the grace and possibility of God in our midst—showing up in ways we wouldn’t have seen otherwise—in ways we can’t see otherwise.

When we sit at Jesus’s feet and gaze upon him, instead of trying to escape our discomfort, we can become fully present to his love for us, which can cease our striving, crowd out our shame, and lead us to real rest for our overworked, tired bones and weary souls in his presence.

When we sit at Jesus’s feet and gaze upon him, instead of hurriedly moving on past, we can become fully present to the people and situations that move us to compassion — to splagchnizomai — like the children running for their lives in Gaza, the widowed neighbor who needs to talk for longer than you have time for, the trans kids bullied to death in Oklahoma, families without adequate housing on bitter nights here in our own community.

When we sit at Jesus’s feet and gaze upon him, instead of trying to overfill our time with multiple tasks and divided attention in pursuit of some future fantasy, we can become fully present to the gift of time right in front of us — winter sunsets, laughter that makes your sides hurt, that thing your kids want to show you — all a gift—the beauty, love, and grace of all that’s worth beholding.

And so maybe, the next time you’re at that stoplight, or the dinner table, or on the Zoom call, or whatever it may be — and that urge comes to pick up your phone or check your email or get lost on Instagram — you might imagine Jesus kicking the back of your seat and saying, “Hey. Don’t miss this.”