What does it mean to hear the word of the Lord?
Proper 11, Year C, Amos 8:1-12, Luke 10:38-42:
What does it mean to hear the word of the Lord? The prophet Amos tells us, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” So I not only ask, what does it mean to hear the word of the Lord, but what is this famine he is talking about?
Some people have visions or experiences that seem so clear to them that there is little questioning (rightly or wrongly) that this message comes from God. Yet even for those people, I would guess, that this is not the way they usually hear God’s voice. I believe we all hear His voice and though we may hear it in different ways it is more often like a small voice that sits on our heart, pulling us in a direction to do something. Sometimes it can be subtle and hard to detect especially when we scramble about in our lives. But none-the-less we often know it is there and we frequently ignore the whisper, for it is so easy to get distracted.
No one can tell you what is on your heart. The need to speak up about something that pains you; the desire to reconcile the hurt you have inflicted. The soft voice that rumbles below our mind, in our spirit, calls us to do something. This action can be dramatic, putting yourself in harm’s way and standing up in protest for injustice. It can also be quiet; sitting and listening; holding off our instinct to blurt out our opinions or answers. For when we do this we are not truly listening to the other person.
This is where we find Martha and Mary. Mary is sitting listening to the Lord while Martha is busying herself with housework and trying to be a good host, providing hospitality. I do not think this business is why Jesus is scolding Martha, especially since hospitality was a very important custom of the day. In reading this story, we commonly want to create a dichotomy between Mary and Martha in which sitting and listing to Jesus is good and doing the housework is bad. I am sure there are plenty of people that would like me to tell them that doing house work is bad, but I won’t. I believe this story is trying to tell us that we have to stay focused on the task at hand. We cannot worry about what others are or are not doing. Both Mary and Martha are doing noble work. But it is Martha’s complaining or at least her method of communication that is the problem. She is triangulating; she is putting Jesus in the middle of a conversation that she should be having with Mary directly.
People in our society seem to be more critical of others than themselves. Our country is being divided because we think “we are right” and we won’t listen to the other side. We often don’t listen in ways which are open to understanding the perspective that the other person has. Understanding comes with the ability to empathize enough to say “I truly understand what you are saying and I see the problem you speak of, even though I maintain my feelings on this issue.” This is how true conversations start. This is how true understanding begins. We have to be humble enough to listen and open enough to be surprised when we get new insight or find that our thought may have flaws as well.
In our polarized world, people are listing to the buzz words or catch phrase that grips their emotion. If climate change is used we automatically think “global warming.” If guns are mentioned, we jump to civil rights. Through our emotional response to certain words we cut off conversations before they even begin.
Martha wasn’t really trying to having a conversation with Mary. She wasn’t directly asking for help nor did she ask why Mary wasn’t helping. Instead, she wants Jesus to get in the middle and choose sides. She thinks she is right and Mary is wrong. She believes this is self-evident to anyone watching the situation. Much like we find the videos we have seen in recent days. But life isn’t black and white. There are rarely clear sides to be delineated. The media and the pundits often over simplify complex issues; lobbyists spin comments or truths into lies just to prove that they are “right.”
Even when we bring these political examples closer to home, we tend to do the same thing. We talk about news events with our friends and we escalate the facts into fear or hatred of others. If our friend doesn’t exactly agree with us we quickly change the subject instead of listing and looking for deeper understanding and meaning. We tend to do the same with our faith. If our prayers are not answered we believe that God isn’t listing; or that the answer being given to us is no. But God isn’t so black and white either. God is a mystery that we are attempting to understand. And God often speaks to us in shear silence not in the tempests.
Could these constant bombardments or distractions around us, which prevent us from hearing the words of the Lord, be the famine that Amos is talking about? How do we expect to hear what God has to say about violence when we surround ourselves with violence? We let the violence into our homes via TV and radio. We watch viral images of death on the internet. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be informed. The images are powerful and can help us understand another perspective of life. But we need to take care of the amount of time we allow ourselves to be in this barrage, listing to the news rehash the same thing over, and over, and over again. If we want to hear God’s voice then we sometimes need to turn off the sounds and images around us. We need to make time to be in God’s presence not just on Sundays, but making time every day. Mary was taking time out of doing her chores to quietly listen to God, sitting at his feet. Martha could have been listening to God even while doing her chores. But her mind was preoccupied with what Mary was or was not doing. She was distracted.
Thick Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Priest says,
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”
We do have the ability to pray, meditate, or listen to God while we do other tasks in life. But this takes practice. Much like training a dog, it is recommended that you train your dog in an environment without distractions; where the dog can focus on you and you on the dog. Then after a while you can take the dog outside where there are sights, sound, and smells. By this time the dog now knows your voice and will listen when you speak.
Likewise, only you know what the Lord is calling you to do. Where he is nudging you. Where he is nudging us as the body of Christ. But it is hard to know if you do not remove yourself from the distractions that are around you.