Love’s First Duty
Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – July 17, 2016 – Proper 10, Year C: Luke 10:38-42
So whenever I hear this text about Jesus, Mary and Martha, I always feel a little defensive – for Martha. I just feel like she sort of got a bad rap in this one. I even struggled this week picking out the kids’ coloring page for the pew pals because so many of the images showed Martha as this sort of grumpy, busy, complaining person while Mary was all relaxed and attentive and sitting at the feet of Jesus. In one image (not the one I chose for the kids!) Martha had just burst into the room holding a large pot, practically waving a ladle, and talking to Jesus and Mary and wearing an unattractive scowl on her face. And so I kind of want to speak up for her: “Of course, Mary was relaxing,” I think to myself “someone else was cooking dinner!” “Sure Mary chose the better part, but how fair was that? Martha was doing all the work!”
And I bet I’m not the only Martha sympathizer in the house today. You know who you are. “Go, Martha!” we cry. “Power to the do-ers!” I’m glad I’m not alone.
I also know that when I react this way, I probably need to take a deep breath. I need to step away from the initial, familiar, perhaps even slightly self-justifying interpretation and I need to listen. I need to go at the the story again so that it can go at me. I need to listen to the words and the people, to try again and listen for what I need to hear.
And that kind of listening is some of the hardest work of all.
But that’s the work that Mary was doing that day when Jesus came over. It’s simple, really: Mary was listening. She was undervalued in that moment by Martha and those of us (which is pretty much all of us) who can go to that Martha-like place, “distracted” as Jesus put it “by our many tasks,” but she was listening.
Now just to be clear, we don’t go to that “Martha place” because we’re bad people; we go there because we’re good, busy people and sometimes, if we’re honest, we’re anxious people. Our tasks aren’t bad tasks; often they are very, very good tasks. Heck, often we’re busy feeding people like Martha was! Pot and ladle in hand. We’re doing work that other gospel stories have given us to do!
But what Jesus was saying in this story is that Mary was doing something too. And it mattered every bit as much as the Martha work did. Mary was listening and there are times when that’s “the better part.” It might even be some of the holiest, most necessary work of all.
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “the first of duty of love is to listen.” The first duty of love is to listen. What if that’s true?
Listening is a skill that we’re losing all too rapidly in our society (understatement of the week.) I think that we’re becoming better and better at shouting in large part because we’ve gotten very, very bad at listening. The volume is rising and it shouldn’t need to. If we continue this course, pretty soon we’ll all be in different corners shouting whatever truth it is that we simply, desperately want someone who is not us to hear.
So one way to break this destructive societal pattern is to get our Mary on. As church we can be more Mary-like, taking time to listen for the Christ in another. We can begin with the assumption that there is something we need to hear and that there is something that others need to have heard. We can listen.
And so as I hear the news of the past few weeks and if I take listening to be the first duty of love then there are people whom I, whom we need to seek out. Like Mary sat at the feet of Christ, we need to sit with the policeman, the policewoman, the black man, the black woman, the gay person, the trans person, the Muslim, the person for whom France is home . . . to name a few. We need to seek out Christ in the other and do our duty.
So Carlos Fossatti, and Reinink brothers of Grace Church, we see Christ in you! Tell us what it’s like to be a cop these days? As you grieve the deaths of fellow officers, as you protect, as you serve, as you learn, tell us something that we need to hear about you.
Denise Kingdom-Grier, my only black female pastor colleague in this town, we see Christ in you! Tell us what it’s like to be raising your children in Holland, Michigan. Tell us what it’s like to be pastoring a multi-cultural congregation and talk to us about what these ongoing deaths of young black men in our country mean for you. Tell us something that we need to hear about you.
People of France, we see Christ in you! As you grieve again this week, tell us what it’s like to be strong and to be victim and to refuse to lose hope even as you struggle so very hard to stand up today. Tell us something we need to hear about being a diverse people who are trying to make it as a free people in this world.
And on a much lighter note, because we need those too: Nineteen year old boy who is now glued to your cell phone and wandering our parking lot, we see Christ in you too! Tell me what it means that Grace is a Pokemon gym! In all the news this week, yours made me smile as I learned that imaginary, yet digitally visible beings are apparently working out in this building ALL THE TIME! So it’s true – I am never alone. What is it about these little creatures that pulls you out of your day to day and helps you be a kid again? Tell me something I need to know about you.
Kate DiCamillo who is one of my favorite authors of children’s books wrote a book called The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s a story about a little china rabbit who was loved by a little girl but (as many profound children’s stories go,) this rabbit who is somewhat fragile, gets lost. And then this rabbit gets re-found over and over again, encountering fishermen, city folk, country folk, old and young along his way. And toward the end of the story, DiCamillo says this about Edward, “He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.”
He knew what it was like to miss someone, and so he listened, some of the hardest, holiest work there is to do. It’s the key and I think that’s what this gospel story is all about. Mary was missing something and she knew it, and so she listened, and in essence she was taught a lesson in what it means to love.
We are missing each other too. I think that’s at the heart of the collective grief that lives right beneath the surface of our every day. And so it’s time for us to listen, broadly, deeply, lovingly not instead of doing, but to make sure that all of our doing and eventually our proclaiming is informed, maybe even inspired and genuinely shaped by the stories, needs and desires of those whom we serve and who serve us. Some of those whom we need to seek out have been talking for a very long time and it’s time to tune in, occasionally even laying down our ladles to listen.
And what better place to practice that skill than right here at Grace? What better place to embody that gift than Grace Church? Like Mary and Martha and even Edward, our hearts will open if we do this simple duty. Our hearts will open wider and wider still as we listen to those who desperately seek only to be heard.
In doing so love comes to be.