Listening and Being
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Luke 10: 38-42
ago, I was teaching at a conference where one of the other teachers was one
of the most experienced church consultants in the
I asked him what the most important thing was that he had learned through all of his years of consulting with churches. He said: “You know, it’s really easier than you might think. Basically, there are two types of churches. There are some churches that are very, very good at ‘being.’ They have worship every Sunday. They have Sunday school. They have committees that make sure that the work is functioning well. The church is operating well. They have reserve funds in case there is a rainy day. They know how to be. But,” he said, “often they don’t do much.”
Then he said, “There is another kind of church. There is a church that is very good at ‘doing.’ They have a lot of activities. Their building is always full of programs. They are engaged in mission in their community and around the world. They are very, very good at ‘doing,’ but they are often not good at making sure they are always going to ‘be.’ So,” he said, “if you walk into their buildings, often there is paint that is peeling. They don’t have rainy day funds set aside. They are good at ‘doing,’ and not so good at ‘being.’” He said, “Most of church consulting is getting churches that are good at being to do something, and getting churches that are good at doing to pay attention to the kind of stuff that they need to pay attention to so that they can keep on being.”
Well, I want to suggest this morning that what this wise and experienced consultant was saying about churches may also be true about life in general. A critical part of life is learning how to figure out the balance between being and doing. It is the balance between taking care of ourselves, spending ourselves, and investing ourselves in what we believe in. It is the balance between self-care and care of others; the balance between receiving and giving; between nurture and sacrifice; between listening and talking. It is the balance in our life between being and doing. Very few of us, it seems, are good at finding that balance.
A half dozen years ago, my doctor referred me to a dietitian. When I went to meet with her, before she would meet with me, she required me to fill out a five page information form. She asked a question on that form that has stuck in my mind ever since. The question was this: “What is more important to you than your health?” I sat there and thought about it and thought about it. Finally, I wrote down: “justice, truth and love.”
Just a couple months ago, my doctor referred me to the dietitian again. I went to meet with her and I said: “You know, something has been bothering me for six years. Why did you ask that question on your questionnaire? What were you trying to accomplish by asking the question: What is more important to you than your health?”
She said: “Well, the purpose of the question is to help people realize that without their health, nothing else much matters.” I said to her, “Well, what about justice, truth and love?” But then before she could answer, I said, “You know, I guess I’m part of a religious tradition that has celebrated the martyrs that sacrificed their lives for justice, truth and love.” At that point she began to look at me as though she didn’t want to be in the same room as me. So, I moved the conversation on to another topic.
You know, in a way she’s right and in a way she’s not. In general, we can do more good in the world if we exist than if we don’t. But, on the other hand, we follow a Messiah. We follow a Lord who gave his life for the sake of justice, integrity, truth, and love. It poses a question of how we balance being and doing in our life. Life is not worth living if we are just living to live. But if we do not care for the needs of life, it would be hard for us to do much good.
I think there are some things that we can learn about this tension, this struggle, from the story about Mary and Martha from the gospel of Luke that we heard this morning. Here are two sisters. One sister is Martha who wanted to serve Jesus and who busied herself with many tasks and many chores of serving Jesus when he came to her home. The other sister, Mary, chose instead to sit at Jesus’ feet to listen and to receive and learn from his wisdom.
Here are three things about this tension that I think we can learn from this lesson. First, there was something about Jesus that invited those who were primarily defined by the larger society in terms of their usefulness, in terms of their doing. There was something about Jesus who invited these people to pay attention to their being. Women in Jesus’ day, and I guess not just in Jesus’ day, were primarily defined by their function and value, because of their functionality rather than their being. And not just women, but especially women were valued by society and taught by the society that they were useful because of their usefulness and valuable because of the way they could serve others.
For Mary to decide to sit at Jesus’ feet and to listen rather than to help her sister in the kitchen was for her to step outside of societal expectations of women. Something about Jesus invited that. If you read the gospel and read about the people who entered into conversation with Jesus, you will discover again and again that Jesus invited women and others who were primarily defined by functionality into conversation about identity and their existence as children of God.
There are still many of us whom the world defines, whom society defines, and many of us who define ourselves primarily in terms of our productivity, our effectiveness and our usefulness. This is especially true for those of us who have been taught to feel like who and what we are is not quite acceptable because of our race, ethnicity, language, class, orientation, gender or physical ability. We have been taught that who we are is not quite acceptable and so we have come to believe that we need to produce more and work harder and be more effective than anybody else in order to prove that we are worth being here, that we have value.
Something about Jesus invites us to put down our dish towels and our serving dishes, to sit at his feet and to listen to what he has to say about who we are. We are more than our work. We are more than our successes. We are more than our sacrifices. We are children of God, precious to God. We are precious to a God who knows the number of hairs on our head. We are not just valuable because of what we produce or perform. There is something about Jesus that invites those of us who have been taught that we have to do more and perform more in order to be as good as others to sit at his feet and be valued and cherished as children of God rather as performers and workers.
The second thing in this story, I think, is this. Unless we pay attention to our being, unless we pay attention to our self, our doing can quickly become merely noise and distraction. Our doing has to grow out of a sense that we are children of God, that we are loved by God and, therefore, we do so that others might know the love of God.
We are an activist church; Foundry is. This is why worship remains the heart of what we do because our activism in the world has to grow out of our experience of knowing that we are beloved children of God, loved unconditionally, no matter what.
This is particularly hard for Methodists. We are a church, we are a movement within the church, that was founded by a compulsive guy. One of John Wesley’s favorite sayings goes like this: “Do all the good you can, by all means you can, in all the ways you can, and in all the places you can, and at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Compulsive enough? Our British Methodist brothers and sisters called this statement by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, “the Methodist can-can.” “Do all the good you can, by all means you can, in all the ways you can, and in all the places you can, and at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
who has a much better memory than mine was reminding me that I quoted this
saying of John Wesley in my very first sermon here at
I know it’s more complicated than this, but I thought to myself, no wonder William James was so depressed. What an awful thing it would be to have all the responsibility that we have in our tradition of serving the world around us which seems to have almost infinite needs, without a sense that we are serving out of a confidence that no matter what happens in the world around us or in our lives, we are loved by a God whom we have known as a savior. We are loved unconditionally and our serving others comes out of the love that we have known rather than the need to prove ourselves about something. We need to experience the love of God in our lives as we have found it in Jesus Christ so that our doing flows from grace or it runs the risk of becoming a distraction and noise.
This last thing, perhaps the most striking thing about this lesson to me is the way Jesus responds to Martha when she comes to him to complain about her sister. Martha comes to Jesus and says: “Don’t you care that I have been in the kitchen working hard to make meals for you and be a good host and my sister hasn’t helped me one whit. Don’t you care about that?”
Jesus’ response is frankly unsettling to me, because somehow I want Jesus to affirm both Martha and Mary. What I wish Jesus would have done was to say: “Martha, you know, what you did in the kitchen was wonderful. That’s what you’re called to do. That’s a great thing and I’m really appreciative. And, Mary, you know, I’m also appreciative of her wanting to learn, so I appreciate you both.”
But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus said to Martha (and this must have hurt her feelings after all that she had done to try to please Jesus), Jesus said to Martha: “You’re worrying and fussing and running around about all of these unimportant things. You know, you could have just let us go in the kitchen and help ourselves. Instead, you’re running around, doing all of this worrying about all of these minor things. Mary’s made the right choice,” he said.
Mary, who made the choice to step outside of what society told her she should do and be, was someone whose value was defined by how useful she was to other people. Mary, who stepped outside of the kitchen and sat at Jesus’ feet to listen and to learn and to hear who Jesus would teach her she was: someone who was precious to God. She didn’t have to be in the kitchen to be precious to God. She just had to be the Mary God made her to be.
We are focusing this Lent on listening. I think this is the bottom line of the story of Mary and Martha: that we can be busy doing all sorts of things, but if we are not listening to Jesus, we cannot do what Jesus would have us do. We can do all sorts of fine things that make us feel better, but if we’re not sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to Jesus, we won’t know what Jesus calls us to do.
For those of you who are reading our Lenten booklet, in a week or week and a half, you will come across a Lenten devotion written by Adele Hutchins. In her devotion she writes this confession, and I think she speaks for many of us: “I am more a Martha than a Mary. I am more a Martha than a Mary – wanting to keep busy rather than to hear what the Lord will say to me. Suppose I do not want to do what he asks of me?”
We come to know our being, who we are, by listening to the voice of divine love. And it is listening to this voice that we come to know what we are called to do, which is to make our world more full of the love of God.