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Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Proverbs 31:10-31 AND Psalm 1:1-6 OR Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 OR Jeremiah 11:18-20 AND Psalm 54:1-7, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

We live in a world where the strong are often the objects of adoration. Consider the way many of us—myself included—are addicted to sports. Go Ducks! We make heroes of the rich and famous, those who rise to political power. Well, not so many politicians are heroes these days, but the scramble for power still gets a lot of attention.

So what does it mean to be strong? How do we find the strength, for instance, to withstand the challenges of life? What makes for strength of character? As we look at this week’s lectionary readings, don’t be surprised if some of our assumptions—some of the world’s way of viewing and evaluating—are turned upside down.

The most profound of the biblical writers seem to have a way of doing that—turning things upside down. This week it is perhaps a reversal of power and weakness. Paul, in II Corinthians, spent some time talking about how it worked in his own life. He reported that the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” “So,” Paul concludes, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9-10) In this week’s Gospel lesson the first is last and the one who is greatest will be “servant of all.” (Mark 9:34-35) Things get all topsy-turvy when the values of “the kingdom of God” prevail.

Most of today’s scriptures speak to us at a more mundane level, making us think about where and how we see character expressed in daily living.

First we have a hymn to “a capable wife.” (Proverbs 31:10) It has been used in many funerals to extol a virtuous wife. I’ve used it myself on occasion, but such uses are often sexist.

Whether the reading itself needs to be seen as sexist is another matter. It comes as a surprise after thirty chapters of mostly seemingly random sayings. Tucked away in those sayings have been some that have not been too flattering to women. Consider Proverbs 21:9—“It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” Proverbs 31, where today’s reading is found, purports to be “the words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:” (Proverbs 31:1) It’s first part includes the words: “Do not give your strength to women . . .” (vs. 3) Then there’s a sudden change of tone when we get to verse 10, almost as if the rest of the chapter were an addition to rebut earlier critiques of women—or maybe King Lemuel is just remembering his mother. Whatever its origin these verses depict a strong women who buys and sells. “She considers a field and buys it . . . She perceives that her merchandise is profitable . . . She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy . . . She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes . . . She opens her mouth with wisdom , and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (vss. 16, 18, 20, 24, 26)

In doing this, she is almost the model for today’s “superwoman” who does it all. While we can critique the expectation that the woman employed outside the home will still do everything at home just like she used to, it is clear that the businesswoman in this reading does not neglect her husband and children. “The heart of her husband trusts in her . . . She does him good, and not harm . . . She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household . . . She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson . . . She looks well to the ways of her household . . .” (vss. 11-12, 15, 21, 27)

At the end we find that she is not valued just for her beauty. “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (vs. 30) Throughout, this woman is described in terms of strength. “She girds herself with strength . . .” (vs. 17) “Strength and dignity are her clothing . . .” (vs. 25) The final verse acknowledges the worth of what she does. “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands . . .” (vs. 31) Earlier her husband has been described as one “known in the city gates.” (vs. 23) Now, the final words cry out to “let her works praise her in the city gate.” (vs. 31) Her reputation stands on its own in the public square, not dependent on the reputation of her husband. Is this hymn in praise of “a capable wife” a great reversal?

Psalm one describes those who are strong in the ways of the Lord as being “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season . . .” (Psalm 1:3) The person of character has deep roots, drinks from a life-giving spirit, and lives a life that bears fruit.

Several of this week’s readings depict the “righteous” life as one of struggle and resistance. In the reading from Wisdom of Solomon, merchants of death lie in wait “for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions . . .” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:12) The context is a discussion of death and those who make friends with the ways of death. (Wisdom of Solomon 1:16)  Just before today’s reading we find these words: “Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome . . .” (Wisdom of Solomon 1:12-14) What we have then is a contest between life and death. These friends of death are going to test what this righteous person is made of. Can the forces of evil overcome the life that is in him? “ . . . let us test what will happen at the end of his life . . . Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death . . .” (vss. 17, 19-20) While what they are testing is whether God will protect this person (vss. 18 & 20), the deeper question is will this righteous person be able to face the forces of death in gentleness and forbearance and overcome those forces?

Certainly we see plenty of insults being exchanged in today’s political environment. Sometimes it seems to be a contest to see who can deliver the first death blow. People of character and strength are able to maintain an equanimity in the face of threats and insults.

In Jeremiah the challenges are faced “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” (Jeremiah 11:19) It’s an image that was later applied to Jesus being led to the cross. Psalm 54 is a prayer for and testimonial to deliverance in the face of challenge. “Save me, O God . . . for the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life . . . The Lord is the upholder of my life . . . For he has delivered me from every trouble . . .” (Psalm 54:1, 3-4, 7)

James addresses in more practical terms how we are to live in the midst of contentious circumstances. Or are his answers practical? “ . . . show by your good life,” we read, “that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3:13) “ . . . the wisdom from above,” he says, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality and hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (vss. 17-18) He roots conflict and war in greed—seeking gain “in order to spend what you get on your pleasures,” ending with the instruction: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:1-3 & 8)

Again we see gentleness and peacemaking as signs of character for those who would follow God’s ways. Our weekly breakfast club discussion explored the limits of gentleness. Can we really make peace with those whose values seem to be set on destroying the things that are life-giving? We didn’t come up with easy answers except to note that gentleness does not mean avoiding confrontation. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Jesus certainly confronted the powers, nonviolently.

Having the kind of character we find in these readings means confronting old ways of looking at things. The context of the reversal Jesus speaks of in the Gospel According to Mark is discussion among the disciples about who will be greatest in Jesus’ cabinet in heaven. Jesus says that he doesn’t measure greatness in the usual way. The greatest is the one who is “servant of all.” (Mark 933-35) Now there’s a challenge for those who would have strength of character—strength defined by servanthood.

The story ends with Jesus bringing a child into their midst and telling them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me . . .” (Mark 9:37) In Matthew’s telling of the story, he says. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4), consistent with other times Jesus refers to children. It’s difficult for us to wrap our heads around such understandings of what it means to be strong men and women. May we humbly continue to learn the ways of strength and servanthood.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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