Martha! Martha! Martha! Why is everybody always picking on Martha? She is a doer in a world where things need to get done. In today’s reading from Luke we are told she has many tasks to accomplish after visitors arrive unannounced. There is food to prepare, dishes to serve, accommodations to arrange. We saw in the reading from Genesis a wonderful example of how hospitality is highly valued in the culture. Martha is doing something as old as the bible itself – making her guests feel welcome.
But her sister Mary? Well, not so much. She is sitting at Jesus’ feet – a traditional posture for a disciple. She is not doing anything, only listening. By praising her over her task-oriented sister, Jesus says the most important thing any one of us has to do is to listen to him. Mary gets what Peter had to be told on the mountain at the Transfiguration: “While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’”
Bishop Hollerith, in a communication with our diocese this week, highlighted the importance of listening in today’s world. He wrote, “it is not always clear what, if anything, we might do to make a difference” in response to the shootings in Orlando, Minnesota, and Dallas. He goes on to suggest three ‘spiritual postures’ which are helpful when “faced with social tragedy and conflict”:
· First, he says, pray! “Prayer,” our bishop writes, “is the stance we Christians take in the face of our own powerlessness. It is our unceasing faith in the power of God to create healing opportunity.”
· Next on his list, listen! Bishop Hollerith contends (as do I) “we live in a society where people are generally far more interested in asserting their opinions than listening to what others have to say.” He instructs, “As Christians, we must demonstrate an alternative way of being in the world, one that values openness to the experiences of others and acknowledges that the truth is usually a multifold reality. In particular, deep listening involves paying close attention to the stories of those who differ from us. And a listening posture helps create an environment where healing and reconciliation are possible.”
· Finally, Bishop Holly says we are to speak! He writes, “God calls every one of us to speak against injustice as we experience it in the day to day, ordinary contexts of our lives.” “This is especially important to do,” he says, “when we hear others - even those who are close to us - articulate hate or indifference or prejudice - the very tinder of social violence.”
So lets spend some time thinking about the value of listening.
It seems to me one of the best compliments a person can be paid is this: he/she is a good listener. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, holds “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” Far from being a passive endeavor, now more than ever listening is hard work. It requires us to turn off our multi-tasking mentality, to set aside our own personal agenda, and to suspend our own judgments in order to be completely available to another person.
Stephen Covey, who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, observes “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Turn on any news talk show and you will discover people of differing opinions talking at (and over) one another, but never listening. Our encounters with one another should open up our world and enlarge our perspective because it is only through listening we learn. If we listen only with the intent to counter our world remains smaller and our perspective more narrow. It stays confined to our own experience and understanding.
The most valuable thing we do at our monthly meeting of Suffolk Clergy United is to listen to one pastor tell his or her story. And because we are an interracial group founded after the church shooting last summer in Charleston, we invite each person to focus on his or her experience of race.
At last Monday’s meeting an African-American pastor shared his story of growing up in Jefferson Davis’ hometown in Kentucky. Years and years ago his grandfather’s brother was charged with looking at a white woman and arrested. That night a mob descended upon the jail, took him out into the public square, and lynched him. He talked about what it was like to be a star basketball player on a high school team whose mascot was a rebel who ran around the gym waving a Confederate flag. He spoke with pride about enlisting in the Marines and being placed in charge of his platoon. He talked about his call to the ministry and the great clergy he served under before coming to the church he presently pastors.
The simple act of “sitting at his feet” has changed how I will view him going forward and it has changed me. He gave a gift to me and to the other pastors present and all we had to do to receive it was to listen.
The psychologist Karl Menniger observed,
“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”
I think this is exactly what is happening in our group of clergy.
Brené Brown says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” To shame I would add naked racism. What our country needs to do right now if stop, pray, and listen to one another. If we do this then how we speak and how we act will change. Don’t take my word for it. It comes straight from Jesus. He said to Martha that Mary has chosen the better thing, so quite busying yourself with all of your distractions and make some time to listen.
I agree with President Obama when he says America is not as divided as it appears, but I would add we are more distant one to another than we imagine. It is possible to be more emotionally connected to a person a thousand miles away who you have never met than to any person living within a thousand feet of you. As I said last week the most effective place for us to make change is right here in our local community.
I hope in the coming weeks and months our interracial clergy group will continue to grow together and then find ways to invite our flocks to join us as we grow in authentic Christian fellowship. Do you know what our next big move is? Can I let you on our grand idea to begin the transformation America so desperately craves? It does not involve translating original Greek, chanting biblical laments in the public square, or channeling the lives of saints who have come before. No. It is even bigger than all this. We have rented a park shelter to come together on a Saturday afternoon in September for a cookout! “What should we say” one pastor asked, “when people ask us what we are doing to change Suffolk?” I said, “Tell them we are planning a cookout!”
Pray for us – not because we can’t get along. We can. Pray for us because we clergy are used to showing up at parish pot-lucks and feeding off the casseroles of others as we listen to the cares and concerns of the various members of our flock. I dare say for me it will be the first cookout in years where I better bring something good to eat! Pray for me!
The writer Ralph Nichols contends, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood [and the] best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Bryant McGill adds, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” So yes, I hope folks like the salad or side dish I bring to the cookout, but even more important I hope they sense I want to listen to them.
Where and when can you listen to another person, especially a person whose experience is completely different from yours – especially and including the experience of race? One of the great opportunities of our time is how the horrific events of the past few weeks, months, and years, have opened the door to honest conversation and listening. This kind of conversation is not about proving I am right while you are wrong. Rather, it looks like the honest sharing of one’s story and respectful, empathic listening. Who might you reach out to to invite into conversation? Now more than ever, people are open to the risk of being honest if and when they sense even slightly the other person sincerely wants to listen in order to learn. Where can you begin?