Sermon: Who is Listening?

July 17, 2022

Amos 8:1-12
Luke 10:38-42

by Eric Anderson

The story of Mary and Martha is not an easy one.

In my years of looking at this story in Bible studies, I have heard a couple of things pretty regularly from participants. The first: Mary should have been helping Martha. The second: How could Jesus be so unfair?

My own faith journey includes a steady delusion that I aspire to Mary-dom, to that place of stormless serenity, relaxing receptively at Jesus’ feet. You’ll have noticed that I regularly encourage people to build quiet time, prayer time, spirit time into their lives. I do this because I am so terribly bad at it myself. That’s partially because I tend to be busy, but it’s also because I don’t really sit still all that well. I have to occupy myself with something.

My devotional time, therefore, leans toward creating something: a prayer. A song. A reflection. A photograph. A thought. I imagine myself in Mary’s posture, sitting at Jesus’ feet, and after a while I know I’d get antsy. I’d want to contribute to the conversation. I’d probably jump up and grab a photograph to show off. I might never even leave the kitchen until dinnertime.

In Mary’s place I’d want to be in Martha’s place.

Your response may be different. This text has often subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, told those in the kitchens and in the workplaces and in the hurly-burly of life that the one important thing is to be found in disconnection, in removal from the concerns of the world, even from laying down the fundamental obligations a host owes to a guest. The Rev. Niveen Sarras, a Lutheran pastor raised in Palestine, writes at Working Preacher, “In my culture and in first-century Palestine, hospitality is about allowing the guest to share the sacredness of the family space. The women’s role is to do all of the cooking and food preparation. It is very unusual for Palestinian women to join male guests before they are done with all the food preparation. In my culture and Jesus’, failing to be a good hostess means disrespecting the guest.”

The problem is, if we read this story as a rejection of hospitality obligations, as an endorsement of retirement from the needs of the world, as a guide to lay aside care for the bodily needs of another, we are forgetting the story that comes right before this one. It’s Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. In it those who gave priority to their religious obligations – the priest and the Levite – were not good neighbors to the man beaten by robbers. The always-suspect Samaritan, who came to the side of the sufferer, he was the neighbor. The hospitable one. The host.

It is absolutely inconceivable that Jesus or Luke could have so abruptly changed their minds about the need to care for one another, to be a good neighbor, to be a good host.

So why didn’t Jesus take Martha’s side and direct Mary to the work of hospitality?

For one thing, Martha’s demand wasn’t to be made of Jesus. The person she should have spoken to was Mary. To be fair, we don’t know that Martha didn’t talk to Mary, or peek into the room from time to time with one of those head bobs that says, “Come join me,” to be followed by steadily more emphatic finger points, hand waves, and increasingly agitated glances. I’d guess that Martha did that and more.

It still wasn’t up to Jesus to intervene, though, especially the way Martha put it. “Don’t you care?” she asked Jesus. When she said that, the question was no longer about her relationship with her sister. Now it was about her relationship with Jesus. She put him on notice that if he didn’t intervene, she’d hear that as rejection. It would hurt, and she’d probably be as mad at him as she was at Mary.

This is not a good way to promote healthy relationships, friends. Of course Jesus didn’t do what she asked. How could he? The sisters needed to speak to each other.

Now, at, Debie Thomas wishes Jesus had done more She writes, “I wish he’d rounded up his (male) disciples, ushered them into the kitchen, and directed them to bake the bread, fry the fish, and chop the vegetables — all while Martha took a much needed nap.  I wish he’d said, ‘Peter, you wash the dishes.  James and John, you put away the leftovers. Judas, get the beds made.  Andrew, you’re on sweeping and mopping duty, and the rest of you: go ask the women what else they need done.  Oh, and in case you boys are wondering: this “girlie” stuff isn’t a prelude to the sacred.  This stuff IS the sacred.’”

I have to admit, that would have been a really cool way for this story to go. But it didn’t. Instead, Jesus told Martha, “There is need of only one thing” – and that Mary had chosen it.

What did she choose?

I’ve been reading this story for decades. It was only this time, preparing for this sermon, that a word suddenly leaped out at me from the text, a word used of Mary but not of Martha, a word that I think makes all the difference. It’s not in verses 41 and 42, though, where Jesus addresses Martha. It’s in verse 39.

“[Martha] had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”

Mary listened.

She listened.

As Elisabeth Johnson writes at Working Preacher, “Martha’s worry and distraction prevent her from being truly present with Jesus, and cause her to drive a wedge between her sister and herself, and between Jesus and herself. She has missed out on the ‘one thing needed’ for true hospitality. There is no greater hospitality than listening to your guest. How much more so when the guest is Jesus!”

Listening. Who is listening? Who is listening to Jesus?

The first rule of listening is… to stop talking. That’s so basic that it’s easy to forget, isn’t it? It is just as true when we’re trying to listen to Jesus as it is when we’re trying to listen to an ‘apapane teaching us how to sing. We aren’t often taught about listening in prayer, though, are we? Our prayers usually consist of words that we read from a devotional work, or words that we’ve memorized over the years (such as the Lord’s prayer), or words that we speak in the moment. Any of those are marvelous expressions of faith and any of those are ways to make a connection with God. Not one of them, however, is listening.

Listening happens when we stop forming those words, either with our lips or in our minds, and wait for some movement of the Spirit to occur. There is this truth to the age-old claim that a life of silent devotion is best: in silence we have a better chance of listening for God. It’s not a certainty – I have spent plenty of time in solitude and silence filling the space between my ears with distraction – but silence is the first step.

The second step is to believe in God’s responsiveness. It’s easy to feel like God wouldn’t deign to speak to the likes of us. In Psalm 8 it reads, “What are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Why would God speak to any human being? Why would God speak to me?

The Psalmist didn’t quite answer the question about “why?” but certainly addressed the hesitation. “Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.” God will respond because God cares, not just about monarchs and presidents and leaders of nations, but about fast food workers and retirees and beginning students and seasoned professionals and all the vast panoply of humanity. Believe in God’s responsiveness and you will be ready to listen.

The third step is to listen carefully, not for argument but for clarification. We tend to listen to one another in preparation for how we’re going to answer their assertions, as if each sentence should begin with “Yabbut.” You know, “Yeah, but.” We can do that with God if we like, but in my experience God is really stubborn. Really stubborn. God can outlast all the “Yabbuts” we can muster, and we’ll be right there at the place of not really listening, and not really understanding what God has come to us to say.

Prayer can be a conversation, but at its best it is a conversation that leads to understanding and to appreciation – even to praise.

Mary listened. Martha might have listened while she did her work – so might you and I – but she didn’t. Mary listened.

Who now is listening?

Is it you?

Is it me?


Watch the Recorded Sermon

There are differences between the prepared text and the sermon as delivered. Every time.

The image is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (before 1655) – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on July 17, 2022

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