The Gift of the Gentle Listener
July 22, 2007
The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor
Montgomery United Methodist Church
At the Home of Martha and Mary
38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning! I’d like to talk with you this morning about a gift, a precious, precious gift. Wouldn’t you love to give a precious gift to someone you care about? Wouldn’t you love to give a priceless gift to someone you love? Wouldn’t you love to help out someone who is deeply in need with a wonderful gift?
Now this gift that I’m talking about today will cost something. It may cost some time; it may cost some energy. But I promise you this – it will not cost a penny of money. It is a gift that is universally needed, and a gift that is universally appreciated. It is a gift that a husband can give a wife and she’ll cherish it. It is a gift that a wife can give a husband, and he’ll value it deeply. It is a gift that parents can give their children, and they need it so very much. It is a gift that friends can give one to the other, and both lives will be better for it.
What is this gift? What is this precious, precious gift that you can give, that will not cost a penny, but will do so very much? Friend, it is gift of being a gentle listener. It’s something everybody needs, isn’t it? We all need the precious, precious blessing of being heard and understood and valued. I’d like to talk with you today about giving this precious gift to people that you love, people that care about, people that need you so much – the gift of being a gentle listener.
We find the roots of this gift in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus is passing through the village of Bethany. Jesus is on His way to the cross, and He knows it. He stops in this place, this place that’s so special to Him, this place that is really home to Him. He stops to be with people who really are family to Him. He goes into the house, and He is especially welcomed by one of the members of the house, and her name is Martha. Martha has issued the invitation this time and is especially welcoming of Jesus.
Jesus goes into the house, into the living room, and sits and talks with Martha’s sister, Mary. What does Martha do? Martha is Miss Hospitality. She is in the kitchen, making dinner, baking, washing dishes, setting the table, cleaning the house, putting out the tablecloth, making sure everything is just perfect. And what is Mary doing? Her sister Mary is in the living room, listening to Jesus.
Martha doesn’t know what to do about this. Here she is, trying to love Jesus in the way that she knows best, and her sister Mary is just sitting there. Martha gets really mad, and she can’t contain it anymore. She goes into the living room and, without even saying, “Come on back into the kitchen, Mary. I want to have a word with you,” she goes right to Jesus. She says, “Now, Lord, tell my sister that she should be helping me. Tell her to come into the kitchen and help me.”
Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about so many things. Only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the right portion, and that won’t be taken away from her.” And friends, I’d like to think that after that, Jesus must have said, “Oh, Martha, come on out of the kitchen. One casserole is enough. Come and sit here in the living room with us, and enjoy this time together. There is so much on my heart that I want you to hear.” I imagine in my mind that Martha did join them, and they all laughed about it together, because they were family. And they sat and listened.
I wonder what Jesus said. Perhaps He was trying to tell them about the anguish in His heart. Maybe He wanted to talk about His fears about going to the cross. He was like us in every way; He needed to be heard. He needed the gift of the gentle listener. To Him, this was heavenly food.
My friends, we can make a big, positive difference in the world this week. You can make a big, positive difference in your personal life and in your relationships by being a gentle listener. I’d like to talk with you today about three ways that we can do it. I’m going to invite us this week to listen with our eyes; listen with our hearts; listen with our souls.
Listen with your eyes, and with your heart, and with your soul. How do you do that? What does it mean to listen with your eyes? It means to be fully present to the person you’re trying to care about. I know the story of a man who was terribly, terribly troubled and broken-hearted. He went to a counselor and paid the counselor to listen to the troubles of his heart. A professional, he went to. And as he got about ten to fifteen minutes into the session, the counselor started looking at his watch! Well, the first time, the man let it go. But a few minutes later, the counselor looked at his watch again. The man let it go. The third time, the counselor looked at his watch and the man said, “Sir, am I interrupting something? Do you have somewhere you need to be? I’m pouring out the pieces of my broken heart, and your mind seems to be elsewhere.”
Well, the counselor wasn’t listening with his eyes, was he? But, you know, counselors are human, too, and who knows what trouble was in his heart. Maybe he was the one who needed listening that day.
But I can tell you this. I can remember a very difficult time in my life, and I chose to go to a colleague in the ministry and to pour out the broken pieces of my heart to him. I remember sitting across from him and at one moment looking up at him, and I remember the expression on his face. It was a gentle, soft, caring look. He was watching me, and he was definitely listening intently. There was healing in that look. I don’t remember what the problem was anymore, and I don’t remember what either of us said, but I tell you this – I remember how I felt when I looked up and saw the gentle, caring look in his eyes.
Listen, my friend, with your eyes. Be fully present to the person that you’re caring about. I think Mary was to Jesus, don’t you?
Secondly, I invite us to listen with our hearts. What does that mean? That means, when you listen, listen for the feelings underneath the words. If you’re talking with someone in the hospital, for instance, and he says, “Oh, it’s so noisy in here, all night long there are speakers squawking and equipment clanging and beepers going off,” you might say, “It must be so frustrating for you to be here in the hospital rather than in your comfortable home.” You see, you’ve spoken a feeling word. You’ve listened for the feeling underneath the expression. It’s a very precious and important way to listen.
If you have a child who comes home from school and says, “This went wrong, and that went wrong, and I failed this test, and I can’t stand that kid,” sometimes we’re tempted to fix it and tell the child what he should do differently. But maybe what we really need to do is to listen with the heart and say, “I’m so sorry you had a bad day. I hope tomorrow will feel better.” That can do more healing and more good than trying to solve the problem.
Now, if you will indulge me for a second, I just want to talk to the guys. Ladies, give me a minute. I want to have a little chat with the gentlemen. Men, there are fundamental stylistic differences between men and women. Do you agree? At the risk of being politically incorrect, I’d like to talk about that. It seems to be that we guys want to fix things, don’t we? It’s as if we were born with tools in our hands, a screwdriver in here and a wrench here, and we want to fix things, to make them better. I have no way to verify this, but I will bet you a doughnut that a man invented the Swiss army knife.*
Maybe your wife comes home and says, “This project went wrong, and this person is absolutely nasty to me.” We say, “Okay, this is how you can make it better. Try A, B, and C.” And she says, “No, that won’t work, I’ve already tried that.” So you say, “Well, you could try D, E, and F.” “No, I don’t think that’s going to work, either.” And we get frustrated, because we just want to make it better. We don’t want them to be in pain.
But maybe what the women need is just to be heard. Maybe they just need us to say, “I am so sorry that happened to you today. I wish it were better. I wish I could lift that off your shoulders. I hear you. I understand what you’re saying.” That might just be what they need. Let’s listen with our hearts.
Okay, ladies, you may come back into the conversation now. Let’s talk some more.
The third thing I’d invite us to do is to listen with our souls. You know you’ve been listened to with someone’s soul when they’re able to put their feet in your moccasins. Let’s put our feet in the other person’s shoes and listen with a gentle heart and gentle eyes; let’s listen with our souls.
I can tell you that I’ve been listened to with the soul. I remember when I was in college. I was a student at one of the finest music schools in the country, Westminster Choir College right here in Princeton. It’s a great school, a great education. There’s nothing quite like it that I can think of. But it was competitive! All these organ and piano majors working on the same pieces, all the strife that goes on at a music school – it was a strange social environment, and sometimes I just wanted to get out of there. I remember some nights I’d go down the hall to the pay phones (cell phones weren’t invented yet) and I’d call my mom. I’d say, “Mom can I come home? I just have to get out of here for a while.” And she always said, “Honey, you just get in the car and come on home.” And I’d get in the old Nash Rambler and head north on Route 1 for Linden. She’d be there, sitting in at the kitchen table, coffee brewing. She’d listen late, late, late into the night to the stories from this broken-hearted college kid. I don’t remember what we said, but I do know that she was there, and that she listened with her soul.
Won’t you give a precious gift this week to the people you love, the people that need you? A gift so precious that even Jesus Christ cherished it. Let’s give the gift of being the gentle listener, because God loves you. He’s the greatest listener of all.
God loves you, and I do, too. Have a wonderful week. Amen.
*According to Wikipedia, Karl Elsener invented the Swiss Army knife in 1891, influenced by suggestions by a friend, engineer Jeannine Keller. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_army_knife>
© 2007 Anthony J. Godlefski