I’m glad that I was taught early on in my preaching career to read both the Bible and the newspaper. in preparing sermons. I don’t know how I would have preached this past month if that were not the case. We are living in a world in which we cannot finish grieving from one disaster when we are jerked toward another that demands our attention. The past month has taken us from Orlando to Bangladesh to Bagdad to Saudi Arabia to Baton Rouge to St. Anthony’s Village, Minnesota, to Dallas, to Nice to Turkey. What next? I suspect that the pace of tragedies in the last month is a foretaste of what is coming for the next period of history; so we better get ready. How do we face a world that is getting to be so unpredictable, when so-called normal behavior becomes inadequate? That’s an important question for everyone to ask these days. If we don’t ask it, our knee-jerk reaction is to fall into fear.
This morning’s brief Gospel story offers one essential clue to facing a changing reality: listening. Listening to the inner voice that God has placed in each of our spirits; and listening to that voice in each other. While Martha was distracted by her normal behavior in the midst of this new reality that had entered her home in the person of Jesus, Mary listened. She listened to the voice of this new person named Jesus. But we know that she had already listened to her own inner voice because she was able to choose the better part.
It is said that to continue doing the same thing while obtaining the same undesired result is the first sign of craziness. Many things have stopped working in our lives and in society. We have to think about how to respond:
- It used to be that the police could get away with discriminating against African Americans and Latinos. But while there were no massive protests in those years, now in the age of the video camera there are. Some believe that accusing the police is unjust. Others believe that it’s about time. We have to listen to everyone and to our inner voice to know the truth about what time it is.
- It used to be that the public didn’t need to think twice about going to the movies, to a night club, or to see the fireworks. But now we have to think about the possibility of terrorism. How will we respond to that reality? Will we stop doing those things? Will we keep going, but be more careful? Are we willing to have some of our civil liberties restricted for our protection? Do we trust the government to do that?
Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced. But through practice it can be honed and used to help us decide what to do when the old rules of behavior are no longer adequate. It is the hinge between the outward and inward parts of the spiritual journey; between compassion and prayer. In the Gospel it comes right after in between the story of the Good Samaritan, which is the classic passage about the outward journey, and right before Jesus’ teaching the Lord’s Prayer, which is the classic prayer of the inward journey. There is no way Jesus could have been saying that it was wrong to work in the kitchen. He was saying that in the midst of the many things there is always one thing that is right in each moment. It may not be the polite thing, or the socially acceptable thing, or the expected thing.
So how do we know what to do and how to live in a new reality? How do we know what the one thing is? Luke tells us that Mary listened. We are not all well practiced in the skill of listening, either to one another nor to the inner voice of the Spirit of God. And listening gets even more challenging when other people have certain expectations about our behavior, and when reality is changing so quickly. We have to listen to the Spirit to know how to move forward.
Those who listen to that inner voice are the first to know that things have to change. But many don’t want to change. That’s why Martha rebuked Jesus for allowing Mary to abandon the kitchen, her normal place. It’s good that Martha asked the question. We shouldn’t let go of our traditions too easily. But after asking the question, we have to listen to the response. And if the response requires a change, so be it. Many times we use logic to defend our habits instead of listening. Martha may have thought, “if Jesus wants to eat, he better tell Mary to get in the kitchen.” Or, “Jesus teaches justice, and it’s not just to let Mary abandon her work in the kitchen.” But logic doesn’t always allow us to see the alternatives; and for that reason we often miss the liberating truth. Martha couldn’t see alternatives like delaying dinner, or asking someone else to help, because her traditions were speaking too loudly. It’s not that working in the kitchen was bad. The problem was that Martha was doing it out of her duty as a woman. Mary also generally worked in the kitchen when there were guests; but in her case the voice of tradition wasn’t so loud that it didn’t allow her to hear other voices. She could listen to her spirit drawing her to the teachings of Jesus.
Many of us don’t know how to listen to the Spirit of God. “It sounds good; but I don’t know how.” I want to offer you an image from the world of swimming. I used to teach swimming lessons. I taught all three of my children to swim. The hardest thing to teach about swimming was the need to glide before taking the next stroke. Everyone wants to move their arms continuously and slap the water. But one doesn’t move forward as fast that way. It’s better to wait a moment and stretch before starting the next stroke. It’s the same in life. In the midst of the action, one has to stop for a moment to decide if this is the right action for this situation, or if I need to change directions. It’s easier to just keep acting and obeying the rules that others put on us. But that opens us to Martha’s error. When we listen to the Spirit in the center of our lives – the most authentic part – we are free to walk to the beat of a different drummer.