The Work of Listening

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 10:38-42.

Martha was distracted by her many tasks, but Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.

I think most of us, when we hear this story, would rather be Mary.

Oh, we may identify with Martha. We may look at Martha and her bustle and busy-ness and being all caught up with many tasks, and we may think we’re just like her. We may even be rooting for her when she complains that her sister has left her with all the work.

But I think, down deep, if we admitted it, we would rather be Mary. Mary who just gets to sit there, Mary who doesn’t have to work, Mary who spends time with Jesus in quiet contemplation and gentle unconditional love. Who wouldn’t want to be Mary in this story?

Or, to take this out of the realm of metaphor and plunk it into real daily life, who among us would rather not have to be busy with tasks and effort and work, but just be able to sit and listen? And don’t we all, at least some of the time, yearn to hear that taking it easy and resting in Jesus is after all “the better part?”

But if we think that’s what the story is saying, then I think we are missing something very important about Mary. I think we are underestimating what Mary is actually up to.

Luke says that Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet.” And in the language of Luke’s time that was a code phrase, that was a kind of shorthand for saying that someone was studying with a master. When a young Jewish man would apprentice himself to a rabbi, to study the scriptures, and be trained in the task of interpretation, and take on the work of preparing to be a preacher, he was said to be “sitting at the feet” of his rabbi teacher. Paying close attention to all the teacher’s teachings, listening carefully and constantly to retain it all while you sat at someone’s feet was hard work. Trust me: I just got back from a weeklong writers seminar where we spent twelve hours a day listening attentively and practicing writing tasks, and it was exhausting! It was hard work. Rewarding! – but hard work.

And that’s what Mary’s doing in this story. Martha may be putting a lot of effort into putting on just the perfect dinner for Jesus’ visit. But Mary is doing the harder work of listening, listening to what Jesus is saying, listening to take his words into her heart, listening to prepare to give his teaching back in her own words and witness and work. Mary may have chosen the better part; but that also means Mary is doing the harder work.

And if we really want to be Mary in this story, then we have to be ready to do the hard work of listening, too. Especially now, when so many voices around us seem to be rising and clashing and verging on violence. Especially now, we must be like Mary, we must take on the work, the hard work, of listening.

Not too very long ago I went to a dentist appointment. And in the waiting room, before the hygienist could see me, the big-screen TV up on the wall was playing a news channel that always, always, slants the news in a political direction I do not agree with. I know that every news outlet slants the news in some way; it’s inevitable; we all have perspectives, and our perspectives necessarily color how we see and understand the world. It’s human nature. But this particular channel always seems to get to me. And as it broadcast, first I thought “Well that’s not right”; and then I thought “That’s just wrong”; and then I thought “That is a scurrilous lie!”; and then I felt myself starting to get angry, and wanting to talk back at the TV. And because I didn’t want to go into the hygienist foaming at the mouth with anger, I went up to the TV and I changed the channel. I found listening to that channel hard work, harder work than I wanted to do at the dentist’s office.

That might work for a television in a waiting room. But I don’t think we can just change the channel with each other. It’s not always easy to listen to each other. It’s not always easy to appreciate a different perspective, or a different experience, or a different agenda. One person says “Black lives matter!” Another person says “Blue lives matter!” One person says “Income equality!” Another person says “America’s for winners!” And it is altogether too easy to stop there, and just to yell slogans back and forth with ever-increasing volume and violence. The harder work is to listen – and to listen in such a way that we not only hear the words, but really try to understand why the other person is saying them, what the words mean to them, what good thing about life and the world they are trying to capture in those words. Really listening is really hard work.

But I think that’s the work God is calling us to do. I think that’s the work Mary is doing, and Mary has chosen the better part. I think the Gospel is a charge to us to choose the better part, too.

And something happens when we really listen. I was in a group once when we were talking about how we experience race. And it was awkward, and it was artificial, and I sorta really didn’t want to be there. And then one of our group, an African-American man, said “You know, it’s just really hard for me to trust white people.  My mama taught me not to trust white people. She said ‘They’ll tell you they’re your friend, they’ll tell you they’re on your side; but if they have to make a choice, they’ll always let you down.’ That’s what she taught us. And I didn’t want to believe it; I wanted to believe that I could make friends with white people and the friendship would be real. But I’ve been let down. And I want to trust you. But I have to tell you it’s just really hard for me to trust white people.”

And I listened to him saying that, and I felt so uncomfortable. I wanted to defend myself and say “I’m trustworthy!” I wanted to defend white people and say “We’re not all like that, not all of us!” I wanted to discount his experience and say “Maybe that’s what it was like when you grew up, but not anymore!” Mostly, though, I wanted just not to have to hear his truth.

But then it began to dawn on me what an act of trust it took to tell us it was hard to trust us. Then I began to realize that, though trust was still hard for him, he was still willing to try, he was trying even now. Then I began to listen not only to his words but to his voice, to the overtones of hurt and hope that were carried on the very way he spoke. Listening to him, for me, was hard work; but as I did that work I began to understand something I hadn’t understood before, I began to see we were working together; and I began to see it was the better part.

A rabbi I shared the house with at the writer’s seminar gave me a quote from the Pirke Avot from the Mishnah, the teachings of the rabbis: Rabbi Chananya said “When two people study together, learn from each other, the Divine Presence rests on them.” And I think that’s what happens when we listen: the Divine Presence rests on us, and the Spirit of God helps us open up a way to right-relationships and mutual well-being and giving and receiving and justice and peace and love. Listening to each other, really listening, is the beginning of the way of making peace.

And it’s not easy. It’s very hard work. But it is the better part.

Who can you listen to this week? At whose feet will you be willing to sit – metaphorically speaking – and whose wisdom will you try your best to learn from? And can you picture yourself listening to wisdom from someone very different from yourself?

May God this week give us grace to be like Mary, and always to choose the better part. Amen.