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There are some Sundays when the scripture lessons appointed for the day are just right. They speak truth to power or relate to a spiritual crisis in the community. They shed light on a current event or they give pastoral words to aching hearts. On those days, I am so grateful for the ways in which I see the Holy Spirit moving through the Church through the vehicle of scripture. Today is not one of those days. I read both our Old Testament and Gospel lessons this week, and my first reaction was, “Really?!? THIS is what we needed to hear this week, God??”
The Old Testament lesson from Proverbs is actually one of my favorites – even though the lesson takes some deconstructing. This passage is often referred to as the passage about the capable wife. Now anytime the church starts talking about how women need to be wives and how those wives need to be “capable” I start getting defensive. The good news is that the title is more the problem than the lesson itself. The Hebrew word often translated as “capable” is better translated as powerful, strong, or even warrior-like. This woman is a superhero. She rises before dawn; manages a staff, ensuring her family has food and security; she purchases property and plants a vineyard with her own hands; she runs a thriving business, providing fine clothing for her family and the community; she is known for her wisdom and is happy and satisfied; and in her spare time, she is a shining example of philanthropy. When you think about the traditional role of women in the patriarchal society of the time,[i] this woman is on fire. She is an empowered woman, an equal partner to her husband, and is the master of both her home and her work outside of the home.[ii] She is like Martha Stewart on steroids.
In the Gospel lesson, we find the disciples struggling yet again. Jesus meets with the disciples and explains to them his fate. And instead of asking Jesus what he means, they remain silent because they are too afraid to ask. Actually, they do not remain silent. Instead, they start bickering among themselves about who will be first in the kingdom. I suppose that if the world is going to end, we might be similarly distracted. But Jesus catches them arguing and shames them into true silence. Not only does Jesus tell the disciples that they must strive to be last – servants of all; but also, Jesus tells them that in order to be a part of Jesus’ kingdom, they need to welcome children like they would welcome Jesus (which really could be interpreted as welcoming the poor, widowed, or disenfranchised). So basically, Jesus tells the disciples they are a mess. Not only are they not listening, they are distracted by their egos, and they are not attending to the one ministry he has called them to do.
So here is the challenge with these two lessons. Basically, we take from the lessons that we are all too full of ourselves, we are distracted by the wrong things, we are not doing the work Jesus has called us to do. And if we want to correct all of that behavior, we need to become warrior women and men – Martha Stewarts on steroids, showing everybody how it’s done. Now I am not arguing that any of those points are not inherently truthful and are not lovely goals toward which we should strive. What I am arguing is that I just did not want to hear them this week. Here we are busting our buns to do the massive amount of work needed to pull off the Fall Fair. Here we are busy kicking off the program year, with teachers preparing lesson plans, the choir readying music, and all our ministries being back on deck. Here we are putting together last minute receptions for the bereaved, trying to complete a major construction project, and trying to ensure that we have enough funds to run our operations and enough energy to evangelize in our community. And that is on top of all the work we are doing to get kids back to school, to reconnect with our community commitments after a summer hiatus, to make sure we are still performing well at work, to get our homes tidy and prepared for fall, and to squeeze in some football games. In the midst of that chaos, the last thing I need to hear from church today is that my priorities are all wrong and that I need to work harder – a lot harder. Thanks, but no thanks, Holy Scripture!
The good news is that there is good news. For all the overwhelming work of the warrior-like woman in Proverbs and for all the scolding the disciples receive, the message from both lessons is clear and surprisingly manageable. In Proverbs, the lesson concludes, “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Now this is not the kind of fear we get when we talk about horror films, phobias, or abject worry. The fear the passage is talking about is “awe, wonder, gratitude, and reverent humility before the Creator.”[iii] Now fear of the Lord may sound like one more thing to add to the to-do list, but actually, fear is where the lessons are calling us to start. You see, the disciples lacked a genuine fear of the Lord. They were afraid in the more traditional sense – of what Jesus was talking about, of what would happen to them, of how they would ensure their own security. They got wrapped up in themselves. But if they had been wrapped up in awe, wonder, gratitude, and humility, all of the things Jesus had to instruct them to do would have come more naturally. If they were in awe of Jesus, they would have easily been able to see how grateful they should be to have a Messiah who would sacrifice himself for them. If they had been in wonder of Jesus, they would have simply been happy to be called a disciple, without worrying about their place or status. If they had been full of gratitude, they would have already been welcoming children – and the poor, and the outcast, and the stranger. The same sort of reversal is true for the warrior-like woman in Proverbs. All of those amazing things she seems to accomplish in 24 hours happen only because of her reverence for God. She is not favored because of all that she does. She is able to do all that she does because she starts in a place of gratitude. The rest flows easily out of that vantage point.
Today’s lessons are not about scolding us for how we get everything wrong, or about setting some impossible standard of perfection for us. Instead, today’s lessons are about checking our baseline. When our baseline is about awe, wonder, gratitude, and humility, we find living into Jesus’ instructions much easier. When our baseline is about awe, wonder, gratitude, and humility, those astounding to-do lists and projects do not seem like burdens but gifts. When our baseline is about awe, wonder, gratitude, and humility, church is not only a place we want to be, church is a place to which we are lovingly drawn. That’s when that piece you were writing about stewardship doesn’t seem scary or even hard. That’s when those sacred moments happen in Sunday School when a child or teen says something profound that stays with you all week. That’s when you are up to your ears in stress about the Fair, and something funny – really funny – happens, and you and the other volunteers laugh so hard that you cry. Holy Scripture today is not directing us down a path of guilt and shame. Holy Scripture today is inviting us onto that path less travelled – the one that starts with awe, wonder, gratitude, and humility, and ends with grace, joy, companionship, and satisfaction. I may not have wanted to hear our scripture lessons today. But I needed to hear them. My hope is that you can hear them in the spirit in which they were intended too. Amen.
[i] Brent A. Strawn, “Commentary on Proverbs 31.10-31,” September 20, 2009, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=390 on September 18, 2015.
[ii] Telford Work, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 78.
[iii] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 79.