Scripture: Luke 10:38-42

It’s really hard to just sit and listen these days. The world is so noisy. Headlines even seem to scream from newspapers. Any time day or night, you can turn on the radio, and hear people debating one another – sometimes shouting at each other – about all kinds of things, and this will only get worse as our presidential election draws closer. It’s hard to find a place that is quiet, even in our own minds.

And there are so many things to do! Many of us have lists of things we want to get done and a sense that we will never get to them all.

Recently I saw some research that said that if we actually sit in silence for two hours a day, we can grow new brain cells. The discovery was accidental. The researchers were trying to measure the effects of different types of noise on our brains, and silence was the control. And that turned out to be where the interesting things were happening. In silence.

But it’s rare that we even just focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a big word in our society. How many things can one person do at the same time? Our attention spans are shrinking. Most of us find it hard to really pay attention to just one thing for very long at a time. That’s the way the world around us works. Sound bites are what we hear, more than lengthy discourse on any one subject. Did you know the average person hears just 3 words from someone else before they often start planning their reply? Just watch a political debate and you will see it. The mouth starts to move almost before the brain has even processed the words.

The Mary and Martha story is a very familiar one to most of us. We have heard it before. And some of us really struggle with it. It can seem to be critical of Martha, who is trying to serve Jesus and frustrated that with so much work to do, her sister isn’t helping. So she complains to Jesus, and tells him what to do. He should set Mary straight.

I know that a lot of us can relate to Martha. What would you feel you needed to do to be ready to welcome Jesus into your home? This is Jesus, who is attracting crowds and controversy, who very well might be the Messiah that your people have been waiting for for hundreds of years. What would run through your mind when you realized he would be coming to your house? Would you want to clean? To shop? To prepare food? Replace the furniture? Remodel the house? Oh my goodness, I remember those days as a child when company was coming and we had to clean everything from top to bottom. And my mom was intense about it. And my kids would probably say that is the way I raised them too. And why do we want to do these things? To show respect? To impress our guest? To make him comfortable? And what would Jesus really want us to do? Would he care about an immaculate house, or a gourmet meal? But that little voice in many of our heads shouts that there are many things that MUST be done!

I remember many years ago bringing a pie to a church event. We were having an important guest speaker, and there was going to be pie and ice cream after the talk. Lots and lots of people brought pies. But suddenly a woman who was in the kitchen receiving the pies cried out that none of these pies had been cut! The talk was about to begin, and we had what felt like millions of whole pies that in her mind were not ready to be served. Apparently the church actually owned a tool that was round and could cut a pie into 8 perfectly shaped pieces with one push, but it was missing and it was a crisis! She was sputtering at the stupidity of people who didn’t even know to cut their own pies before bringing them – that had not occurred to me – and at people who didn’t put things back in their proper places in the church kitchen. And the situation was tense. I confess that I am often a Mary type of person, but when stressed, I can turn in to a Martha too. The Mary in me spoke first. I suggested that we just put all the pies on the serving table, along with knives by each one so that people could cut their own pieces of pie. Maybe that was even better. Some people might want bigger pieces and some might prefer smaller ones. And then we would all still be able to hear the speaker.

If looks could kill I would certainly have died that day. She glared at me and said: “You can’t do that!” I thought to myself that I most assuredly could and wanted to say, “Just watch me” but I knew that wouldn’t help the situation. So I started to cut some pies, but all the while I was starting to get resentful. I was turning into Martha. I was mad at her for being so picky, and mad that others hadn’t stayed to help, and I was going to be really resentful if I missed that speaker because I was slicing pies. So after I sliced a few, I went to the talk. The other woman never made it in.

The sad thing was, I knew her daughter well. She is about my age, and she has her mother’s voice running through her head all the time. And I suspect her mother got that voice in her head from somewhere too. Most of us know that voice. It’s the one that says we aren’t good enough, or smart enough, or pretty enough, or competent enough and we had better work hard to compensate for that. It’s also the voice that causes us to miss out on opportunities, because it demands rigid obedience to it. It’s the voice that sometimes means we lose out on important things because we don’t feel worthy to speak up, or to participate, or to even have the right to just listen. It’s the wrong voice to listen to, especially when we have the chance to listen to Jesus instead. That voice was so intense for Martha that she ended up yelling at Jesus to do something about her sister! Not a great example of a Christian who is supposed to be known by our love.

So Mary makes another choice. The most extraordinary being in the whole world is in her house right now, talking about a whole different kind of life, and she is going to listen to that voice, instead of to the one that has the frantic to-do list going. She is going to listen to the voice that teaches that God knows you by name, and loves you, and wants you to know how to really live, rather than the voice that says you are a no good lazy person who doesn’t even know how to properly set a table.

And speaking of tables, there is some interesting new thought about this passage. In the original language, what Martha is doing is waiting on tables, and since she is in her home, we automatically draw the conclusion that she is bustling about to serve Jesus dinner. But in the book of Acts, there is a discussion about how the disciples set aside some other people to serve as deacons. Their job was waiting on tables, but it didn’t mean serving a meal in their house or at a restaurant. It refers to a specific type of church ministry. Deacons then and now are people set apart for a particular type of service through the church. So it may well be that Mary and Martha were participants in the very early church, that they were in charge of a very early house church, and that what Martha was mad about was that she had to do the lion’s share of the ministry.

That begs the question, what is good ministry? How do we go about doing the things that Jesus would have us do? Well, in order to know what Jesus would do, we have to listen to him. For us that means spending time in Bible study, not only reading his word, but searching out the cultural contexts and the language issues so that we can truly understand that word. It means spending time in prayer, so that we can take our questions to Jesus, but then we need to wait for the answers. Sometimes we mistakenly get the impression that prayer is all about us doing the talking and God doing the listening, but the real results come in those quiet spaces that we learn to leave, in which we can hear God respond.

Jesus had a to-do list that was a mile long. “Let’s see, this week we feed five thousand people, cure a few people with incurable diseases, raise someone from the dead, and give an important talk while engaging the opposition in interesting debates, and trying not to get killed too soon.” But as you read through the Gospel, you find him taking time away on a regular basis, sometimes by himself and sometimes with just a small number of the people closest to him. He went away to pray, and for him prayer clearly meant spending time with God, not just talking, but listening as well. And in those moments of cherished time with God, he gathered strength and courage to do what needed to be done. Without those times he would have bounced from place to place like a ping pong ball, with no clear direction.

Living the Christian life is about being in relationships – a relationship with God, and relationships with one another. And in order to have a relationship with someone else, there has to be some give and take. One of the reasons that I loved visiting my grandparents so much was that they and their friends were all retired and seemed to have lots of time to listen to me, which made me feel special, and to talk with me about their thoughts on life after decades of living, which taught me a lot.

So it seems that the real problem was not that Martha wanted to set a nice table and serve a fine meal for Jesus. The problem was what that voice in her head told her about the need to do a lot of extraneous things, to the point that she was going to miss growing her relationship with Jesus. And she was going to be resentful and angry. Brother Lawrence was a monk in the 17th century. He was noted for his sense of great inner peace, which caused others to seek him out for spiritual guidance. Yet the work he did at the monastery was performing rather ordinary domestic chores for his fellow monks. His goal was to keep his attention fixed on God at all times, and he found that all manner of work could be performed effortlessly, and with peace and joy when the focus was on God. He said, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” Maybe if Martha hadn’t been so angry and resentful about her work, but had seen it as an opportunity lovingly serve God in the flesh, things would have gone better.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the need in the world, and to beat ourselves and others up for not accomplishing more, but it’s important to notice that Jesus didn’t heal everyone in the world, or eliminate poverty, or convert everyone to Christianity. He dealt with those he encountered on an individual basis, offering what he had, and calling us to do the same. He took time to really see and hear the people he encountered. He knew them by name. Jesus also took time to stop and rest, and withdrew from crowds to have private time in prayer. He spent time with friends, and went to parties, but everything he did was influenced by his relationship with God, which made him so unique. Like Mary, it is important that we listen first to the message Jesus has for us, and then, perhaps like Martha, to go and do what we can to serve others, but to do so with love and great joy, for it is in lovingly serving others that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Amen

Learning to Live as Disciples–Listening