Preaching Notes for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 20, 2015)
The Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser
In spite of generations of preachers who have imagined that these verses are intended to describe “The Good Wife,” I find myself persuaded by Alyce McKenzie’s argument that the writer here is not holding up an ideal example for women to emulate, but rather recounting the characteristics of Lady Wisdom (McKenzie and most scholars call her “Woman Wisdom”). McKenzie explains,
Coming at the very end of Proverbs, this acrostic poem is part heroic poetry, part hymn of praise. It sums up the qualities of Wisdom and commends her benefits to potential followers. Woman Wisdom, who earlier in Proverbs has come out of her home to challenge the young to enter the path of wisdom, now invites them into her home, a place graced by lovingkindness (31:26), industry, and care for the poor of the community. The message is clear for the readers of Proverbs: Become members of this woman’s household! If you do this, you will gain every measure of happiness (Alyce McKenzie, Preaching Biblical Wisdom in a Self-Help Society. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. pp 116-117).
In Proverbs, the wisdom of God comes to the world in the form of a woman. Last week we heard Lady Wisdom shouting from the street corners, calling upon her people to not turn away from the knowledge she had to bring. This week we get a glimpse into her many attributes:
- She is trustworthy and brings gain to those who commit to her.
- She is faithful.
- She does good work with her hands
- She feeds others.
- She takes care of her home and especially her female servants.
- She is a landowner.
- She is a gardener.
- She is physically strong.
- She takes care of her belongings.
- She is a weaver of fabrics.
- She takes care of the poor
- She keeps her home warm
- She makes her own beautiful clothes and sells clothes.
- The people in the city know and respect her
- She keeps busy.
- She is happy.
- She fears the Lord.
Wow, what a list! That doesn’t sound like any human, male or female, at least not one that I have ever known. It sounds more like a list describing the attributes of our Divine Creator. And indeed, that is one way to think of Lady Wisdom. She is one of the faces of the Lord God. She is the wisdom of God. She is the Spirit of God. She offers the love and care of God to God’s people.
And what’s more amazing is that she invites us, she invites you and me, into her home. She invites us to be part of her family. She offers us all of the benefits of her wisdom, if only we are willing to reach out and take her hand, join our hearts with her heart.
We see the face of God in so many characters in our Holy Scriptures. Sadly, the vast majority of faces we are given are those of men. So how refreshing is it to see the face of God in the gifts and graces of a female character, Lady Wisdom, Woman Wisdom, full of grace and mercy for God’s people.
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
This week’s lesson from James also concerns wisdom. It is posed around the question of whose wisdom we follow: the wisdom of God or the wisdom of the world? For James, the answer to this question is found not in what we say, but in what we do. And James is very clear that we can’t have it both ways. We either follow the wisdom of God, or we follow the wisdom of the world.
So maybe it would be good to take stock of our own lives and examine what our lifestyles reveal about whose wisdom we really follow.
James says the wisdom of the world cultivates a life defined by “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” while the wisdom of God is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3, verses 14 and 17).
What does a life that follows the wisdom of the world look like? It is selfishly motivated and characterized by an endless parade of desires. It is a life in which a person simply can never have enough. It is a life where, in order to have all of the finer things in life—a large and lavishly decorated house, nice cars, expensive vacations, a closetful of fashionable clothes, perfectly coiffed hair, membership in the country club, maybe even a boat—the person must become a slave to feeding the never-ending demand for more and better things.
He or she must be willing to sacrifice everything else in order to obtain this lifestyle:
- Sacrifice time with family and friends to long hours to earn more money to fund all of these expenses.
- Maybe sacrifice some personal integrity and be open to cheating a little bit if it helps him or her to stay ahead in the game
- Sacrifice trust in other people,because they mightsteal from him or her
- Perhaps even cultivate a willingness to take away someone’s life in order to maintain one’s own desired lifestyle
By putting this in such stark terms, James forces us to ask ourselves very seriously what it means to choose to live a certain way when we know that our choices have dire consequences for others. Further, he calls us to not look the other way but face the hard truth.
For example, I must face the fact that when I buy a fashionable item of clothing that I know is made in a place that has been well-documented for using child labor or forcing people to work in terrible conditions for very little money, I am living by the wisdom of the world. And because I spend many long hours working so I can earn a pretty decent living, I can afford to buy that new dress or that pair of shoes. But does that make it okay?
James is saying in the strongest terms possible that it does not make it okay. In fact, he is saying that if I do that and I choose not to see the consequences of my actions, I am living according to a wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.
This is but one very simple and common example of something from my own life. I must confess it, and furthermore, I know deep down in my heart that James is right about this, and that I am guilty of living more according to the wisdom of this world than the wisdom of God. And yet, I do buy that new blouse or that new pair of shoes anyway.
What does this mean for the average American who reads this passage? What does it mean for the people to whom you are sharing this word from God? What does it mean for you personally? Can we even be honest enough with ourselves to take a hard look? I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it pretty upsetting.
How can we move away from living according to the wisdom of the world and toward the wisdom of God in our everyday lives? What changes do we need to make to submit ourselves to God and resist the devil so he will flee from us? How can we draw near to God, so God will draw near to us?
Sometimes I feel really bad for Jesus. Do you ever think about how frustrating and depressing he must have found his situation?
I mean, he had hand-picked and personally called all of these disciples with whom he planned to be in ministry. When he asked, they had all agreed to come along. They had followedhim from place to place, lived with him, watched him, and listened to him night and day for three long years. They had seen him perform miracle after miracle. And then, finally, when Jesus asked them who it was that they thought he was, only Simon Peter had figured out that he was the one sent by God.
That’s sad, isn’t it? I mean, he must have felt disappointed. So little to work with! But, alas, he just had to take it all in and move on.
“Okay, Simon Peter,” he said. “You’ve got it right. I am indeed the one sent by God to show you the meaning of life. And this is what I’m going to show you. When we get to Jerusalem, I’m not going to overthrow the government and take control of the city. Instead, I’m going to let myself be turned over to those who are already in charge. Then, they are going to arrest the one whom God has sent, put him on trial, find him guilty, and put him to death. So if you’re thinking we’re going to end up on top, I can tell you for sure that we are not going to come out the winners, at least not in the way that people keep score. We are going to lose, and we’re going to lose big time. But God doesn’t keep score the way that people do. So three days after he has been killed, the one whom God has sent will rise from death. This is the way that I trust in God. And you must trust in God too. You must follow this kind of pattern of living. You have to throw out the rules by which people keep score, and trust in God to keep score. This is the meaningful pattern that God has sent me to show you. Do this, and you will find life” (See Mark 8: 31).
So what did Simon Peter, the only one who had correctly named Jesus as the God-sent one, do? How did he respond? He began to argue with Jesus, and they got into it so bad that Jesus was obliged to rebuke him (Mark 8:32-33).
The lectionary skips over the next part and saves it for Transfiguration Sunday, which comes just before Easter, but in the Scriptures it says that it was just after this argument that Jesus decided it was time to put the fear of God into Peter and James and John, so to speak.
So he took them up on a high mountain for a little get-together with Moses and Elijah. And while this was going on, the robes that Jesus was wearing began to flash like lightning, and the voice of God came out of a cloud and told them to listen very closely to whatever Jesus had to say (Mark 9:2-8).
After all this happened, these shocked men climbed back down off the mountain where Jesus was almost immediately surrounded by a great crowd of people in need of healing. The disciples stood by and watched as he healed another child. When he was finished, he began to teach them again, saying that he was going to be killed, but that after three days, God would redeem him from the dead. The disciples listened intentlyand nodded their heads solemnly, but it wasn’t two minutes before Jesus caught them having an argument over which one of them was the greatest, who among them was Jesus’ number one disciple.
Now don’t you imagine that Jesus would have liked to have grabbed one or two of them and slapped their faces?Here were his closest colleaguesdisplaying this reprehensible kind of activity that we see on football fields and other sports arenas where the players, after scoring, begin to dance around in a showy way and hold up their index fingers and proclaim, “We’re number one!!”
Back in the days when I was a cheerleader (yes, I was), we even had a cheer about it. It was really simple: We would strut around and clap our hands while chanting “We’re number one! We’re number one!” rhythmically. And then, as if that weren’t enough, the band would begin to play that song by Queen, “We are the champions.” We’d sing along and feel all self-satisfied and indulgent and superior.
You who are reading my words right now know exactly what I’m talking about. We have all had the experience of self-satisfied elation that comes whenour hometown high school wins the ballgame on Friday night, or our daughter’s team wins the volleyball tournament or the softball game, or our favorite team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl.We know that feeling, and we like having it.
So this is kind what Jesus’ disciples were feeling that night so long ago. They were thinking thatif they stuck with Jesus, one day they would score a big victory. They’d win the election. They’d be number one. The top of the heap. The rulers of the Roman World. The President of the Roman States.
And which one of them would be Jesus’ right-hand man? Who would he pick to be hisvice-president? What would be the pecking order among Jesus’ closest followers when they won the big victory? Which one of them was the MVP to Jesus?
This, my friends, is what they were talking about. This, on the eve of what was to be shame, embarrassment, failure, and death, which was what was waiting for them in Jerusalem -- as Jesus had just told them. This, in the context of everything that Jesus had been about and tried to teach them for three years. This is what he found them arguing about as they walked along the road to Capernaum. Can you imagine how he must have felt?
But Jesus never responded like you and I might. He never lost his cool. He never slapped anybody around, not even when he was really provoked, as he was in this situation, when it must have seemed to him like everything he had been doing these three years with the disciples had been nothing but a waste of his time and energy.
What Jesus did do was calmly sit down and call everybody together around him for a little talk --a “come-to-Jesus” moment if there ever was one. And he took a child into his arms and he said to them, “If anyone would be first, that person must be last of all and servant of everybody else. Whoever understands that his or her status is not higher than the status of this child, understands life and me and the God who has sent me” (Mark 9: 35-36).
What was Jesus trying to get at by talking about this child? Well, part of it might have to do with the fact that in those days, a child had absolutely no standing in the community, no status, no rights whatsoever. A child was the property of his or her father. A child had about the same rights as our dog Rusty has today. And maybe with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals around to protect his rights, Rusty may have more rights.
As powerless as some children might feel in our day and age, believe me when I say that tremendous strides have been made since the times when Jesus lived. But each one of us can recall what it feels like to be a child, so we can surely understand what Jesus means.
Especially in times of war, a child was, back then, just as today, completely powerless and at the mercy of the grown-ups who are struggling for power. And what the disciples had thought Jesus to be leading them into was nothing if not a war.
After all, their ancestors had taken the Promised Land by war. David, their greatest king, was the one who had been the greatest at waging war. It was going to take a war to overthrow the Romans, who were the best-known conquerors and wagers of war in that time. But before that could happen, their own rulers in Jerusalem would have to be overthrown, which also meant war.
They had thought that when Jesus was born, he might be the one sent from God, but the proof of that would come only after he had grown up and come into power by not just waging war, but by winning that war. So when Jesus said these words, the disciples surely must have wondered how in the world such a child could be of any use in any test of real power, like war.
We can all remember that after the attacks of 9/11, the United States declared war first on Afghanistan, and then on Iraq, and a number of other nations as part of the War on Terrorism. Shortly after the campaign in Afghanistan began, my bishop at the time, Bishop Joseph Sprague from the Northern Illinois Conference, went to visit Afghanistan. We were all worried about his decision to put himself in such a dangerous situation, but he felt strongly that if our young men and women were risking their lives in combat, then he was willing to put himself at personal risk to bear witness to it. He spent abouta month there. When he came back, he made it his mission to go around to as many churches as he could to talk with United Methodists about what he had seen.
He even came to my little church in Chicago for our Wednesday night Bible study one week in the spring of 2002 to talk to us.We had about twenty people gather that evening to hearabout what he had witnessed. The most lasting impression on me came in the form of a hand-drawn picture that a ten-year-old Afghani boy had made for him. He’d met the boy in an orphanage that had been set up to care for the youngest survivors of the war. It was a child’s rendering of what it had been like when the bombs began to fall upon his family’s farm.