25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 20 – September 20, 2015

Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

I am having a psychological conundrum around this week’s texts.

There is Proverbs 31, that ode to a capable wife that describes the superwoman of her day: homemaker, entrepreneur, wise, supportive, beloved, God-fearing and all done backward and in high heels, apparently. Her Facebook page would be littered with photos of healthy school lunches, packed with precision and beauty THE NIGHT BEFORE with captions that say, “So easy!” and “The kids love my homemade granola bars and organic hummus!” Meanwhile, I am debating which kid will complain the least about having the heels of the bread make up their peanut butter and jelly sandwich because I neglected to go to the grocery store. (The middle one complains the least. Sorry, honey, I’ll try and make it up to you later.) Ode to a capable wife just makes me feel inadequate and therefore cranky. Do I really want to preach this text? Do I want to hear one of the pastors (both male) at the church I attend preach this?

Then we get the admonition from James about doing nothing from selfish ambition and being willing to yield, but I have “Lean In” on my nightstand (on the floor next to the bed, truth be told, because I am an incapable wife…). Sheryl Sandberg says I am supposed to speak up, take a seat at the table, assert myself, miss the school play without guilt or apology… right? But then there is Mark and I am not supposed to want to be the greatest. I am supposed to want to be the last, the servant. But then there was that story on NPR last week that asked: Why are women less likely to become entrepreneurs than men?  Darn you Shankar Vedantam and your reporting on research that seems to demonstrate that women lack the hubris to keep at it if they first don’t succeed! Vedantam said, “The researchers find, Steve, that if women who fail had the same overconfidence as men, the number of second projects they launch would jump by a third. If women who succeeded were less humble, the number of projects they launch would jump by 16 percent.”

Overconfidence, less humble, these are the goals, then? But that doesn’t square with James. It doesn’t align with Jesus! According to this week’s readings I am supposed to be able to do it all but be humble about it and not want anything other than to be a servant. Have mercy – now that old perfume commercial is running through my head, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never let you forget… .”

What am I to do? Lean in? Hold back? Stumble forward? Fall behind? As complicated as this is for a capable or not wife, I am not sure it is much less complicated for anyone else in our culture. We are all walking fine lines between self-confidence and ego mania or between humility and self-deprecation. No one wants to be an “arrogant jerk” (those words of Steve Inskeep’s got some people fired up on the comments of that NPR piece), but neither do any of us want to be doormats, either.

That’s why these texts are of the utmost importance for our communities of faith. When public figures are lauded and applauded for calling people names and others are of so little value that it takes a toddler washed up on the sand to get the world to notice their plight, a different way of looking at ourselves and each other and our respective worth is desperately needed.

The lectionary readings for this week can give us new lenses with which to see the world and our place in it. First of all the Mark text starts with Jesus, a very good place to start (sorry for the “Sound of Music” reference) and the place we need to start our preaching. Jesus, repeating what he said in last week’s lesson, says he will be, must be, betrayed into human hands, killed and three days later rise again. The “into human hands” phrase would have rung more bells for Jesus’s first disciples than it does for us. Take a look at 2 Samuel 24:14 and Sirach 2:18 where “falling into human hands” is in stark contrast to “falling into the hands of the Lord.” No matter how mad the Lord may be with you, it is far better to land there than into those of mortals. In other words, the fate ahead of Jesus is the worst one imaginable as it would seem that his fate is out of God’s hands, at least for three days. This brings to my mind Alan Lewis’s book on Holy Saturday and the “descended into hell” part of the Apostles’ Creed. There is an absence from God – space that Jesus occupies in our place. When we forget that reality, our sense of place in the kingdom, on earth as in heaven, is radically skewed.

Jesus goes where we would surely go without his intervention and further he creates a place for us where it would be impossible for us to go if he had not been killed and three days later risen again. This truth is the basis for our sense of place and worth and value. We are both totally deprived, a fallen and corrupted good, deserving of being out of God’s hands and yet… we are so beloved and cherished and valuable in God’s sight that God refuses to let us go. God not only refuses to let us fall into the hands of mortals but sends the one and only Son to take on that space and place and fate in order to spare us. Wow.

We are made right with God, put in right relationship with the One who made us, and therefore our place is that of grateful, joyful creature, ready to serve the God who loves us despite the fact that we are often wholly unlovable. And here’s the thing – this is true for you and for me – for wives in all ranges of capability and husbands and disciples and men and women, whatever their roles may be: All of us are children of God, the one we call Abba, and there are no favorites in this family.

That’s something to lift up this Sunday. There are no golden boys or girls in God’s household, only beloved sons and daughters for whom Christ died to reunite with their Father and with each other. All this stuff about who is the greatest is a waste of energy and angst and time. We are all servants of the One who came to serve and therefore we aren’t here to seek success, we don’t need it, our worth doesn’t depend on it. We are here to be faithful and how that faithfulness is evaluated by anyone other than the Most High God is irrelevant.

Isn’t that freeing? The most important part of the Proverbs 31 ode, like a good German sentence, comes at the end. What’s the true source of all this goodness and grace that flows through her? It is her fear of the Lord, her relationship to God and her understanding of herself within that relationship. How do we get our ambitions rightly ordered and executed according to James? We submit and draw near to God. If we do that everything else will begin to be put in its proper place, our sense of self included. What removes our need to be the greatest according to Mark’s Jesus? Welcoming God through welcoming the children God loves.

If our sermons this week start with the saving work of Jesus and end with a call to find our place at the feet of the God who made and claims us, then surely the Spirit will speak and those present will have the ears to hear that they are not the greatest. They, like all God’s children, are beloved by the Triune God and therefore no other adjective is necessary.

This week:

  1. In Mark 9:32 the Gospel writer notes that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were afraid to ask him. Their inability to understand seems reasonable, but why were they afraid to ask Jesus for help in understanding? Are there things we are too afraid to ask Jesus about? What are they? What are we afraid of?
  2. How do we keep our need to be the greatest in check? Why do we constantly compare ourselves to others? (Don’t tell me you aren’t looking at that friend’s school lunch photos on Facebook!) What might we gain if we stopped keeping score of who is doing better or worse than we are?
  3. How do we in our current context welcome children in Christ’s name? What would happen if we remembered that welcoming a child is welcoming Jesus and the One who sent him?
  4. Is there a danger in Jesus’s call for disciples to be last of all for groups of people who have been exploited? How can we prevent this text from being used to justify the abuse of vulnerable people? Think about having a bible study on this passage with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. How might those experiences influence one’s interpretation of these verses?
  5. Read Proverbs 31 as an ode to Wisdom rather than as an ode to a particular woman. How does this depiction of wisdom in the world resonate with you (or not)? Which verses are ones that you would like to apply to your life?
  6. Use James 3:17 in your personal devotions this week. Make note of the characteristics attributed to wisdom from above and try to practice a few of them this week.

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