Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Stay on Target

"Stay on target. Stay on target."

Do you remember that phrase? Many of you might remember it from the climactic last scene from the original Star Wars. Luke is barreling down the tight alleyways of the death star with a small rag tag band of rebel fighters, dodging imperial tie-fighters while trying to line up perfect aim with their target, that small 2 meter exhaust shaft leading to the Death Star’s main chamber.

Do you remember? As Gold Five approaches the final run, he tries to focus and calm himself and his wing-man…stay on target…stay on target.

While that may be a memorable scene, I most often hear that phrase not on the silver screen, but in my own home. It is the phrase my partner uses to help me focus when I am lost in a sea of panic. Whether I am frantically trying to find my keys or my cell phone, whether I am scurrying around the house trying to make it spit spot before a visit, or whether I am hurling frustrated curses toward any one of the many pieces of technology I can’t use, I hear that phrase… “Stay on target. Stay on target.”

While it began as a joke, it has become an important reminder for me to slow down, focus and pay attention to the task at hand. I don’t know about you, but there are times when it seems almost impossible to dodge the many distractions thrown my way. Focusing and paying attention to the present become difficult as I navigate my way through a life filled with a myriad of things to do. Not only do I find myself distracted by a seemingly endless to-do list, but I find myself easily swept off track by a media culture that offers instant access to stories and pictures from around the world. Some days just checking my email without getting rabbit tracked to stories and links about rare-giant squid or human oddities can be tough. I lose sight of what is really important both distracted by the details of life and lured away by the insignificant and trivial.

In the Scripture we read today, Jesus tries to help sisters Mary and Martha stay on target and focus on what really matters. Jesus has invited himself over once again, this time to the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. While Martha is busy with the household duties of hospitality, Mary is far more interested in listening to what Jesus has to say. When Martha scolds Mary for shirking her domestic duties, Jesus replies with what have felt like a quick and cutting remark aimed at Martha, saying, “Martha, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Ouch.

The message seems clear. Focus on what really matters, what is really important in life. Keep your eyes on the prize. Look to Jesus. Don’t sweat the small things. Stay on target.

What Jesus tries to help Martha understand is that the domestic details and quotidian tasks that worry and distract her pale in comparison to the task of listening and responding to the good news of the kin-dom of God. In the end, Jesus tells her, life’s long to-do list is meaningless. Whether the house is clean or the meal on time, doesn’t matter in the long run. While worldy concerns are fleeting, the words of good news are eternal.

At times this is a message we all need to hear, isn’t it? Sometimes it is difficult not to get distracted by the many small things that compete for our time, things that in the long run and fleeting and meaningless. It is amazing the way certain things seem to derail us, sending us into a tail spin over what is in the end, nothing very important after all.

In a book by Fannie Flagg, Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, (Random House, 2006) the protagonist, spunky ninety five year old Elner Shimfissle does get to heaven and there she has an encounter with the Divine, who turns out to be for her a beloved couple from her past; happy homemaker Dorothy, from the Neighbor Dorothy radio show, and her partner Raymond. Far from the painful judgment she expected to hear, tales of all the things she did in life to disappoint God (or now, as she sees Dorothy and Raymond), Elner is invited in for tea and cake. Rather than a list of should haves, could haves, would haves from a damning divine, Elner is encouraged to ask questions, anything she wants to know. And so she asks, what the meaning of life is after all.

This is how the Divine pair respond:

“Seriously though, to put it as frankly and simply as I can…life is a gift.”

Dorothy smiled at Elner. ‘That’s right, a gift from us to you, with love.’…

Elner shook her head in amazement…’It’s kind of funny, really, a;; these years everybody has been so busy trying to figure what life was all about, and all the while, it was just something for us to enjoy.”

“That’s right,” said Raymond, ‘You see…life is not nearly as complicated as people think.”

‘No,’ said Dorothy cheerfully. ‘It’s kind of simple really.’

Raymond turned around…and pulled down a large picture of a carnival…’You see, Elner, life is like one big roller coaster ride, with all kinds of bumps and twists and turns, and ups and downs along the way.’

‘Ahh,’ said Elner, ‘all we have to do is just sit back and enjoy it.’

Raymond said, ‘Exactly. But the problem is…most people think they are steering, and get so busy trying to control it that they miss all the fun parts.”

Flagg has an interesting take on heaven above and life down here. There is something right about paying attention to life’s twists and turns and enjoying the present moment for what it brings. In many ways, it echoes the traditional interpretation of the passage we read today, encouraging people to take the time to pay attention to what really counts…not some pie in the sky paradise to come, but to the present moment, the here and now, life’s pleasures, life’s joy, life’s fun parts, life’s gifts.

It is a simple, comforting message that helps us stay on target in the present moment and enjoy the gift of life God has given us. Yet, there is something not right about it, something that doesn’t quite fit, just like there is something not right about the traditional interpretation of Martha’s sin and Mary’s virtue.

What I think is wrong about these simplistic lessons on life’s values is that they miss the target. The target becomes isolated and individual. While for some, the target becomes a very narrow understanding of the good news found only in the literal interpretation of scripture, the target for Flagg becomes individual enjoyment. The focus in both on a very narrow interpretation of the one important thing misses the target that Jesus was trying to get both women to pay attention to.

Remember that scene in Star Wars…Gold Five who keeps intoning the phrase “Stay on target. Stay on target,” does indeed succeed in staying on his target. Unfortunately his narrow focus gets both him and his wingman blown up.

The success in the cosmic story of Star Wars comes when Obi-Wan reminds Luke to “Let go and trust the Force.” This isn’t a “let-go-and-let-God” moment, but rather a widening of focus, a widening of target to encompass the whole picture rather than just the two meter target, or the narrow interpretation of scripture or the isolated individual take on life’s joy.

Both Martha and Mary were too narrowly focused on what they were doing. They became easily distracted because their focus was too small. Jesus tried to help both of them understand that the reign of God was wider than that. It was not about a clean house or a perfect meal, but neither was it solely about sitting and learning. The gospel is about a holistic view of the world so that one can move past the distractions to see the whole of God’s call for a world of peace and justice. It is about both the already and the not yet.

The one needful thing is the vision of peace and justice that God has given us. It is a wide and broad view that extends not only to the ends of the earth but to the end of time as well. It is an eternal arc that bends toward justice. As we journey together toward that vision we must keep that wider, broader view focusing our eyes beyond these four walls, beyond our annual conference, beyond General Conference, even beyond the United Methodist Church. We must stay on the target of justice that God has given us, moving closer and closer to the kin-dom.


Kirk said...

Roger that, TK-421!

Jeremy said...

Yeah, pretty much any sermon-as-blog-post that begins with Star Wars is a winner from me!