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Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
September 23, 2018 –Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
We come to the end of our time in the Book of Proverbs today. They have sprinkled our meditations on the word for a few weeks now. They are like bumper stickers in a way. They are brief as a bumper sticker, but they are much deeper.
"A proverb is a short sentence founded upon long experience containing a truth,"according to Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. So what we have been reading, Cervantes tells us, is the distilled wisdom of ages of observation.
What they are trying to do…a little bit like a bumper sticker…is to see what is right in front of us…without running into it. This is how things work, they proclaim. Look away at your own risk.
The Perfect Wife that we read about today is advice the mother of King Lemuel gave to her son. You are the king. You can marry anyone you want. Look for these qualities in those who interest you. This is the ideal person for you…or anyone.
She appears to be giving her son the king advice about how to be worthy of the crown that has been given to him. Do not be distracted by bright colors and excited talk. Look more deeply for qualities of lasting value.
Speak out for those who cannot speak, she implores him, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
So do not look for a trophy in a wife, as the world would see one, but look for a trophy in a partner, as God would see one. For God is all-powerful, and still cares about us. God is wounded by the follies of our baser instincts, and still loves us.
If you cannot serve your people…and your wife cannot serve you…with the kindness and mercy and love that God shows to a mere mortal such as you… and the two of you…how can you be worthy of that love, or your crown.
To a certain extent, and in many ways, King Lemuel’s mother is giving this advice to us. We, too, have a crown. We have more power now than he ever did. We enjoy knowledge and riches that he could never have dreamed of.
We are rulers of our own lives, captains of our own ships, as Americans, far beyond anything he could have claimed.
Our lives are our kingdoms. We cannot control what happens in our lives any more than kings could keep foreign armies from invading, but we can determine our response to anything and everything.
There is nothing, Lemuel’s mother tells us, that will secure the one we serve, that to aspire to these qualities:
We should makes our own clothes, do all the cooking, manage the household, have an interest in commerce, be involved in manufacturing…which I think means we should all be in ministry.
We should work in social services, be ready to handle unexpected tragedies due to snow…in the desert…possess prophetic clairvoyance, provide education out of school (or synagogue) for our children, and go to church regularly.
Then get up the next day and do it all over again. It sounds like a lot because it is a lot, but isn’t that what we hope from this world? A lot?
And once again, in the end while there is nothing we will take out of this world, there is much we can leave behind. There is much good we can set down for those who come after us.
We can stand on the shoulders of giants today because they persevered and did not give up. May we live our lives so that others will one day be grateful to find themselves standing on our shoulders.
The list of good virtues we read sound exhausting to us today, but none of them are beyond our hopes if we only continue to hope. None of them are beyond our abilities if only we continue to try.
The night before my mother’s funeral my brother and sister and I sat and talked about her. She sewed and she cooked and baked bead and she kept a yard and garden. It was as if we were talking about three different people, but at the end of the day we all agreed on one question about her: How could she do all of those things?
She did them one at a time, as she found time, and she did them because they needed to be done for the people she loved. There was something more important to her in this world than her own comfort and pleasure.
It might have been the world to come…her place in the kingdom… or it might have been something she could see right there in front of her: her children…or it might have been something she could not yet see: her children’s children and all those who were to come after her…and after her children…and after her children’s children.
Our future is not in the rich and the powerful. It is in those who have even less power or wealth than we have. It is in our children.
They may lack our resources. They may lack our wisdom. They may lack our patience. But they have our love…just as we have God’s love…just as we have Jesus’ love.
James calls upon us to do what we do in the spirit of humility that comes from wisdom. If we do it for ourselves, we have already passed away…we are already dead.
But if we do it for another as Christ has do everything for us, we enter into the Book of Life. We have a place in this world.
Martin Luther didn’t think much of the Letter of James. He said it was “an epistle of straw… for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”
But I think it has a saving grace. It informs what our response to the nature of the Gospel can be, and while it might be hard to do all it calls to us to do, it is hard to misunderstand…like our mothers were hard to misunderstand when they gave us advice.
William Zinsser has become a legend on writing well. He boiled the art down to four basic principles: Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity and Humanity (or Authenticity).
Of all the letters, perhaps it is James who touches all of these 20th Century virtues of communication as well as any of our correspondents from that amazing time when mortals were trying to distill and send the core teachings of Christ into the future…to us today…to our children tomorrow…and to unknown generations in ages yet to be.
That is what James, and all of the Christian Bible writers are trying to do. There had been a great light that burst upon the world. It had made so much clear so simply and they were trying to share that with people they would never meet in days they would never see or imagine.
As a result we have a Book of Life…a Book of Love…a Good Book from the 1st Century that has much of value to say to people in the 21st Century. Somehow, by simply saying what was true, by simply doing what was of true value, they seem to have come close to being that ideal wife of noble character that King Lemuel’s mother described to him…one word at a time.
Jesus tries to make his teachings as clear as they can be by telling stories to illustrate the point. When asked “Who is my neighbor” he replies “There once was a man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” and gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan.
When he was accused of welcoming sinners and even eating with them, he replies, “There once was a man who had two sons…” and gives us the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Today he shares his teaching with an act…taking a child in his arms and saying whoever welcomes one of these little children welcomes me. He did and said this to a people who were clinging to a life that they knew could be taken away at any moment…by thieves, by an ungrateful son, or by the Romans.
And he was trying to explain to them why he persisted in producing miracles and cures and freedom even as he knew he was about to be put to death by people who were unworthy to touch the hem of his garment: the Romans…and his own people.
What is the point if all is about to be taken from you? That was the question. And he seems to say…to me, anyway…that he is creating something that can’t be taken away from him. He is writing his own story…clearly, briefly, simply and authentically.
So he takes a little child into his arms…the symbol of chaos and all of life’s challenges, but also the vehicle that will be a bridge for all of us into the time to come.
What we do with them will be remembered by them, what we do for them will sustain them, and it will all become what we can do through them.
Is he to die…right here and right now…is he to quit trying and doing what he can? Or is he to continue to give of himself to all who will listen and the few who might hear…is he to consent to being consumed…body broken and blood poured out so that those who know him and those who might one day hear about him might have life and have it more abundantly?
Today he wraps his loving arms of protection around a child who cannot produce enough money to pay for the food they must eat…but one day they will be producing the fruit that others will eat.
It is a symbolic act…more than a parable. He is not saying what we need to do. He is doing what we need to do…to give of ourselves that we might become one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
Soon he will engage in another symbolic act. He will be hung upon a cross of wood by people who are unaware of the scripture of his people that anyone who is hung upon a tree is accursed by God… and he will die there while his mother and his beloved disciple look on.
But three days later those who grieve and those who have turned away…even denied they ever knew him…because he did not do what they wanted him to do…will see that he has done something far greater.
Then they will see that they are the little child who cannot give themselves what they need to live. Then they will see that he has taken them in his outstretched arms to give them hope…and a better world…a more abundant life.
Then they will see that when your relationship with God is right, your relationship with your neighbors is right…and when your relationship with your neighbors is right…even your relationship with a little child …your relationship with God is right.
When we welcome those who do not deserve what we have to offer we receive what we ourselves do not deserve. We become, in James’ words, one who is wise among us.
We become, in the words of the mother of someone who was lucky to be a king, a wife of noble character. We become someone with faith and works…a faithful and faith-filled follower…of Jesus Christ.
O God, who is it that you want to hear your word, see your mercy, feel your love wrapped around them today? O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world, through me, this day? Amen.