Learning to Listen: Mary, Martha, and our Great Societal Problem

This is the text of a sermon preached at Hamline Church on July 17, 2016. The two texts were the Parable of the Leaven, and the story of Mary and Martha with Jesus.

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[a] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

The Parable of the Yeast, or the Parable of the Leaven, is one of my favorite hidden gems of Jesus’s teaching.

In this little tale, Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a woman, who places yeast into three measures of flour, and mixes until it all is leavened.

And I think this is a particularly good little story for two reasons, two reasons–both easy to overlook.


Because Jesus is using the work and experience of a peasant woman to tell his story about the kingdom of God.

This means either that Jesus is teaching women and therefore using a story from their own experience, or that Jesus is using the experience of women to teach men—therefore validating the work of women in the eyes of those men. Either way, it is preposterous. To teach women—considered inferior creatures—about the mysteries and of God was down right radical, and making men consider women’s work as somehow holy—equally so. Jesus is intentionally using the lives and daily existence of poor women to show people what God is doing.


Three measures of flour is an incredibly enormous amount of flour.

It comes down to something like 1 and 1/8th of a bushel, which ends up being 149 cups of flour. When she’s done she’s going to have enough bread to feed 150 people. Before her is an enormous, preposterous, insurmountable lump of flour—and into it she simply mixes the leaven, until it is transformed into bread. In her hands, this kingdom of God is unstoppable.

Now we have before us an enormous societal problem, that has, in the past few weeks, reared its ugly head.

The presence of institutionalized racism has interrupted our lives in a way that may seem insurmountable, overwhelming, preposterous, even. Many of us are left feeling like we absolutely have to get to work, but have no idea how address this incredibly insurmountable task.

And perhaps, the story of Mary and Martha offers us a little bit of leaven, a bit of yeast that can transform this insurmountable challenge into a conduit for the kingdom of God.

Mary and Martha’s lives have just been interrupted by a rather large task: Jesus of Nazareth—and I imagine, many of his disciples—have arrived on their doorstep.

Martha immediately gets to work, cooking and cleaning and caring for her guests as she is expected to do. But we quickly discover that Martha gets distracted and annoyed with all that work—especially when she realizes that Mary has no intention of helping her. She leaps right into her work, but she can’t sustain it, because she has not stopped to feed her soul.

Mary, on the other hand, chooses to let this interruption be an interruption. Mary chooses to sit and listen. And this is not an interruption just of her plans for that day, but an interruption of her very role in society. From Martha’s reaction—we realize why it is preposterous for Jesus to be teaching women, because it is so ridiculous that Mary has chosen to sit at Jesus’s feet—like a man. Mary rejects who she is supposed to be in favor of who God asks her to be, in that time, and in that place.

When she is interrupted by the presence of her God, Mary allows that interruption to be total: no longer behaving as she is expected to behave, she sits at the feet of Jesus and just listens—listens to what her God has to say to her.

Through this story, we learn that leaping into action—simply re-acting, does not truly interrupt us enough for us to hear the transformative word of God. Through Mary’s actions, we can also learn to listen—to live into an interruption, in order to hear the word of God. Listening is holy, even and especially when it means that we leave who we are expected to be behind us.

Now we don’t have Jesus in the flesh, in our living rooms, preaching to us—so we can’t choose to simply sit at his feet in order to listen.

There is an incredible amount of noise out there, so simply stating—listen—isn’t really going to get us to a place where we can hear God speaking.

Instead, it will take careful discernment, careful practice, and a development of the skill of listening to get us where we need to go. But Jesus tells us here that it is essential, and worth it.

While observing our national conversation, over this past week and a half, as violence escalates, media proliferates, and new tragedies take over the cycle—I think there are two ways that we can break from our regular roles, and listen in a way that is new to us. Two places, where we can listen for God speaking and teaching us through this interruption:


We can listen to our brothers and sisters of color.

Governor Dayton did an incredible thing, shortly after Philando Castile was shot. He came out of the governor’s mansion, into the protest outside his gate, and he extended his condolences to the family of Mr. Castile. But those condolences were brief, because he did more listening than he did talking. He listened to the mother, to Diamond Reynolds, with her four year old in her arms. And what she had to say to him was not kind, it was not generous—but it was her truth as she needed to say it. And he listened.

Now, in the midst of this interruption, it is essential that we listen to our black brothers and sisters, not just waiting for our turns to speak, but to truly hear their truths as they need to say them.

Be it the mother of a slain black man in a car, or a black police officer for whom these times produce deeply painful realities: their truths, as they need to tell them, carry the word of God for us.


We can listen to own experience.

Most of us in this room are white people. We can learn to listen to how being white has shaped our lives. We can notice, document, and interrogate our skepticism of black bodies.

When we walk into a room—a restaurant, a meeting at work, a gathering of friends—how often are there only white people present? In our children’s classrooms, are there only white children present? Why? How? When we make choices that are good for our lives, good for our children’s lives, are those same choices white-washing our lives—are those same choices available to our black brothers and sisters?

When do we associate holiness, and grace, and power with whiteness–and fear, and violence, and chaos with blackness? What subtle, unspoken things in our life reinforce that for us?

I’ve done it. I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s there in my heart, and it sneaks up on me when I’m not paying attention.

To listen to ourselves when we notice these things, this can be the beginning of radical change—each time we are skeptical of a black body, dismissive of black culture, suspicious of a black voice—each time we notice that blackness is simply not present in our lives—we can all listen to the effect this has on us and on our children—because change comes when we notice how we, too, have been wounded.

The Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois, the 3rd, of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville New Jersey writes a powerful, careful explanation of the role of prophetic Black rage in this day and age, saying:

When America does not see the humanity and sacredness of Black bodies, Black rage demands that Black bodies are seen—seen as human bodies. The incestuous relationship between poverty, failing public education, and rigged criminal justice makes black bodies invisible, literally removing human beings from the flow of society. The faces of black girls, boys, women and men are unrecognizable in the long shadows of low wages, state violence, and prison profiteering. In the tradition of Emmanuel Levinas, a prominent Jewish intellectual, we know God and encounter the face of God in the face of the other. This signifies that people are responsible to one another face-to-face. Understanding the face of the other as the face of God, the face demands us to do more and be more.

And so, learning to listen—learning to see the face of the other, and learning to notice when the face of the other is taken from us—this is listening, as Mary does, in a radical and transformative way.

And we should not be against the police—we should be for the police. We should not be against Black Lives Matter: we should be for black lives matter. Because both have been deeply wounded by institutional racism.

We have a long road ahead of us in fighting institutional racism in this country. We have a long road ahead towards reducing gun violence, gun proliferation, and a time when we truly can see the face of God in those who have been forgotten.

To learn to truly listen can be that leaven that transforms this insurmountable amount of flour into bread:

it can be that humble beginning that starts a chain reaction in favor of the Kingdom of God.

And let me be clear: change is not inevitable, and it must begin with us. We do have work to do. But it is essential, invaluable, to learn how to listen first: so that we can do the work that is needed, not merely re-act.

So, let us plant the seeds of the kingdom of God in ourselves, let us truly learn to listen to our god, to hear God’s voice in one another, for if we can do that, then the Kingdom cannot be stopped—even if it is the tiniest bit of yeast in the most enormous lump of flour.

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