I ventured out this week into Sydney, the CBD and travelled by bus and train. It is always interesting to travel by public transport, with a multitude of others where focus is not on driving, the road and other cars. I packed my bag in preparation with that which I needed for a meeting and that which I presumed would occupy my time on the journey there and back. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read or do in the couple of hours travel time so covered a few bases and set off.
I stood on the bus and couldn’t read and the all-important (by the standards of other commuters) mobile phone was locked in my bag and hard to access. I watched and thought and pondered my co-travellers. There was much looking and watching, listening and flicking of screens. A few carried on one-sided conversations, well one-sided from my perspective. No-one really spoke, except into these phones. Kids had tablets or phones, screens to amuse and silence them. I watched and wondered and looked beyond the windows to the creek and bush we passed, some newer factories, hospitals and cars and people on the footpaths. I saw people do stupid things on the road and others demonstrate thoughtful and gracious actions.
There was a world beyond the world of the cacoon of the bus – and then train. It was a world that was as mysterious and silent as the passengers on this bus and train. Houses, units, workplaces, hospitals, university, aged care centres and shopping malls all passed us by on-route to our own destination where, presumably, we would re-enter the human race and become relational beings. Who were the people who lived out there? What were the silent cries of pain or loneliness, confusion and struggle that went unheard in the vacuum of life in a closed-off world? Everywhere I looked we were distracted, even in my thoughts there were distractions leading me off in every new direction, inventing stories about people I saw – the youngish woman with the tattoos and multiple piercings taking several long and quick draws on her cigarette as the bus pulled in. What about the family of mixed race struggling to get on and off, holding toddlers in check whilst pushing a pram and heading for the hospital – what was their story? Was it illness? Was it visiting or treatment? There was anxiety or was it tiredness and frustration on mum’s face and dad was going through motions, checking messages with one eye and kids with another. Who were these people, my neighbours, perhaps – certainly those who lived in the same general region but people I will never know, nor speak to?
The stories and thoughts flowed with the rocking train into the city with its changing landscape, higher density and more crowding, people closer together and yet seemingly more separate, distracted and alone. As I emerged from the train and had time to kill, I sat with a coffee as people rushed by. All muted and dispassionate looks on their faces, bored or going through the motions of life. Distracted by lights and colours and screens in hand and all around. Distracted by shopfronts and sales and the spruiking of desperate marketing that promised everything – and nothing. I was so distracted by the passing hordes and the wonder of their lives I almost forgot to taste the coffee I was drinking. It is too easy to be distracted. As I sat and thought I realised that I was on my way to a meeting with people from across the state to share stories, struggles and decisions that would be for the well-being of church and society and the world – if we got it right. I was distracted and unfocussed. What was important? What was real? What should I focus on to make my meeting more significant and effective – what really was important?
In my thoughts I wandered into an ancient and known story, a simple story that led me into another world, another place. In this simple tale told by Luke (10:38-42) a pair of sisters welcome Jesus and his troupe of disciples into their home and shared a meal. Mary up and plonked herself, ‘male-style’ before this rabbi from Galilee and hung off his every word. Presumably he spun tales and offered wisdom on life and living and responded to questions and discussion and Mary delighted in this rare foray into the patriarchal world of learning and spirit and faith. Meanwhile in the ‘back of house’ centre of functionality, Martha held sway over the time-honoured and valued work of women in providing hospitality. She cooked and cleaned and made the space open and welcoming. She served and served and served. Service in Luke is a highly valued role – Jesus came to serve – but Martha is distraught and left fuming over her sister playing the male game and not lifting a finger to help. Martha is tired and distracted by the many things that need doing – whether they need doing or not!!
Finally in a fit of fury, Martha marches on Jesus and lets fly with vindictive rebuke of him and her sister who is letting the side down and crossing all manner of boundaries… Jesus, as always gently slides into the response and honours her work but calls her out for her distracted life.
There are many things, Martha, that worry and trouble you, that distract you from that which is most important. Mary has chosen to do the more important thing. The story ends and my mind revs into gear. There are so many thoughts that tear around inside my mind. Mary breaks social and patriarchal conventions and does the very thing women have been deprived of for centuries – and in many places still are. She wants to learn, she wants her place in the world, valued and equal to others, whatever gender or race, or creed or orientation. She wants her place as a person before this holy one of God. She wants to sit in the presence of the Divine and listen – just listen and become. What courage or desperation or faith does it take for Mary to break with protocol, expectation, culture and the pressure upon her and stop with tradition and honour Jesus with her presence?
I wondered as I sat in a busy space near Town Hall station and watched some of the scattered human race rush by. Do we really understand what is important? Do we take time to hear the cries all around us – of the poor, the Indigenous people, the asylum seekers, those caught in violence – domestic, in the workplace, in society… – those who live with mental illness or disability or chronic illness…? Do we look into the cup of coffee and hear the cries of those who suffer to produce the beans or those who sweat life away in sweat shops to make clothes or…
Perhaps, like Martha we are distracted by the many things that consume us, worry or trouble us, some of which are vital and important and some of which are not the real thing, the main game of life. We may accumulate the world and lose our lives, our souls, our being, distracted and busy. Or, we may put aside our distractions and focus on the source of life that is love, grace, joy and peace. The One we call God.