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Monday, September 24, 2012

"A capable wife..."

Pr. 20, Yr. B
Proverbs 31:10-31

      I need to confess that the primary reason I chose to preach on the passage from Proverbs is because at our staff meeting earlier in the week, Maria Horner dared me to. How could I not rise to the challenge?
      And what a piece of scripture. I suspect that for most of us, the urge is to tell the narrator, "Yeah, good luck with catching that capable wife!" She's like a super ball bouncing this way and that, doing all things, for all people, in all places, all the time. As if most women don't already struggle with the feeling that we aren't quite measuring up, these verses certainly add some fuel to the fire of inadequacy. I'll hazard a guess that most anyone, female or male, would be intimidated by such a person. In the ancient, very patriarchal world, this may have been some man's view of the perfect wife, but it doesn't play very well here today in the context of any relationship.
      That doesn't mean there aren't some interesting aspects to this passage, and I give thanks to biblical scholars online for helping me find them! First of all, did you notice what's not in here?
      Despite the presumption that such a woman will be married, she's not assumed to be reliant upon her husband to conduct herself. Get out your insert and take a look: those are active and direct verbs. She seeks, brings, rises, opens, buys, laughs, supplies, girds, holds, provides. Her husband is known in the city, but none of her behavior is predicated on his competence; instead, he trusts her. This is by no means the subservient woman we're more often accustomed to hearing about in ancient times.
      The second idea that isn't in there is that her looks create her value; to the contrary, we're told "beauty is in vain." That's a very different message from modern culture. Even contemporary women of the kind of competence described here--just in the political arena, think of Michelle Obama, Condaleeza Rice, Hilary Clinton--have disproportionate attention paid to their appearance, and heaven help them if they're having a bad hair or fashion day...far more than for any man. That's a fact of our society. But in this Proverbs passage, that's not even an issue. She's not successful because she wears the right clothes or has radiant skin and silky hair or has trim and toned thighs; we don't know if she does or not, as those features simply aren't brought up.
       The Book of Proverbs is in the category of Wisdom literature, scripture that provides counsel about how a good person is to live a faithful life. What this is is a litany of advice--technically, perhaps even an oracle, as from a prophet--to a royal son, from his anonymous mother, about finding a woman whose might matches his own. One modern scholar translates this first verse not as "a capable wife" but instead as "a woman of warrior strength"...though I'm not sure that makes the task of finding one any easier! This king shouldn't waste his time and energy on a woman who might squander his warrior strength; he should find one of similar prowess and skill. Understanding this helps explain why she isn't a wife who only does stereotypical "women's work"; she's a highly capable and hard-working merchant, agriculturist, trader, and philanthropist in her own right.
        Earlier verses in this chapter commend to the king a charitable heart and generosity in giving; it's no surprise, then, that these verses echo those same sentiments as traits held by this strong woman. She gives to the poor and takes notice of the needy, rather than hoarding the wealth she's earned. Her actions are a direct reflection of her wisdom and kindness. In fact, she looks a lot like Woman Wisdom, a figure whose speeches throughout the book of Proverbs personify the ways of the faithful. Maybe this warrior wife isn't even meant actually to exist, but is yet another way of portraying the virtues promoted by Woman Wisdom.
      So what's the takeaway for us here? Besides being intellectually interesting, is there value in ruminating on this passage? I had to ponder this for a while, and a few lessons came to me.
      First, that strong is good and desirable. Not strong in the sense of outwit, outplay, outlast, but by one's own measure. To be willing to embrace boldly whatever is our calling. Maybe we're strong by pruning bushes at a work party, and maybe we're strong by lifting the needs of others in prayer. Perhaps our strength is making fabulous casseroles or inviting someone to dinner or out to lunch, or on the flip side, allowing others to bring us a meal or do something kind for us when we're having a hard time. We might speak with strong, prophetic words, or we may listen with a strong intensity. Being strong isn't in comparison to others, but with regard to the use of our own gifts...and that strength is something to be embraced and celebrated, not demurely denied or hidden under a bushel.
      Second, we're called to be people who make choices, not simply react or roll over. Our circumstances may be shaped by the era in which we live, the limitations or vision of the day and of those who surround us, the random chance of the economics and education and environment into which we're born. This capable wife described in Proverbs had all sorts of cultural boundaries, and yet...she is described as a do-er, a person of considerable action who is decisive in her own right. There are always choices we can make, including, in the words of one of my favorite prayers in the prayer book, the decision "if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly."
      I don't think I'd really want to be this capable woman, nor can I imagine wanting to be married to her! But that doesn’t mean dismissing this praise of her strength, her decisiveness, her spirit. The bible is filled with words that are difficult or confusing, which seem unattainable or unreasonable, yet we’re still called to wrestle with them.  When I was in seminary, one of my Old Testament professors, knowing the challenges we would encounter in our study of scripture, always began class with the collect for Proper 28, which I pray with you now:
      Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

"We not only preach great things, we live them!"

 The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney
  Proper 17    9/2/12
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

     Hi, I’m Sylvia.  I am not an alcoholic or a drug addict, but my friends with addictions have taught me a great deal about how we can all allow the trivial to become idolatrous in our own lives, and how important it is that we attend to the ways in which we may be doing just that.
     “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.”
     When I was in my early twenties I was given the very graced opportunity to serve as a therapist in a 12 step based alcoholism treatment program for six months.  At the same time, I was dating a man in his early twenties who was just beginning to realize the role his father’s alcoholism was playing in his life and his family’s life.  In both those settings I watched the kind of courage, faith, and faithfulness it took to embrace and hold fast to a changed life. That time was a time for me of great learning both about myself and about what it means to live in a world where what should be the smallest part of life becomes the center of one’s life.  I also learned from these people what it can mean to one’s life to take stock, to be truthful with one’s self about who we have become, and to set one’s self on a path of becoming more than whom we have ever been before.
     That same passion for being more, becoming more…finding the best capacities and potentialities within ourselves that AA strives to instill in its members is also present in today’s epistle and today’s Gospel.  And this is indeed no accident.  The 12 Step principles were written and shaped by Christian philosophers and church leaders who wanted to be able to share with the world the deep truths they had found for their own lives about what it means to live a good and noble life.  For the author of today’s epistle, nothing is more real than the knowledge that Christ can make of us more than we are capable of being on our own. 
     There is this wonderful ancient quote from the church father Cyprian that says “We do not only preach great things, we live them!” And he penned these words to describe the extraordinary and heroic ways in which seemingly ordinary Christian people were participating in the miraculous through their own empassioned acts of love and charity.  They were able to live into this kind of miraculous holy love because of the life process of confession, surrender, and transformation that had led them to that place.  The process of conversion in the early church demanded of each person prior to their baptism that they take a full-on fearless look at themselves in the mirror, and then come to see themselves not just as they were, but as God could already see them—cleansed, strengthened, renewed and transformed.
     Part of what today’s Gospel is about is the recognition by Jesus and the Gospeller that the kind of religious cleansing that needed to happen in people’s lives had to go much deeper than a ritual washing of hands before meals.  It had to be a cleansing of the heart, of the psyche, of the whole person.         It had to be a cleansing that washed the filth and defilement out of one’s soul, and that it would only be after just such a complete, intense power wash of one’s own being that one could begin to claim a blessed God filled life. 
For Jesus, to be religious in the truest and most noble sense of the word meant to become transparently truthful about one’s own prayers, one’s values, one’s longings, one’s motives.  That kind of grueling life work sits at the core of a righteous life—not a weak, superficial ritualistic imitation of that true, deeply personal, spiritual life work. 
     Consider for a moment how Jesus must have felt to have his beloved disciples who had sacrificed everything in their lives to follow him be denounced because they did not carry water with which to make ritual ablutions before they ate whatever food had been offered to them from someone else’s charity. Consider for a moment how it must have seemed to Jesus for those who had so much to be so derisive, so dismissive, so condescending of those who had so little because of all they had already given up!
The 12 Steps invite all of us, not just alcoholics and drug addicts, to take the kind of look into the mirror that James describes in today’s epistle and Jesus demands in today’s Gospel.  It is the kind of honest, courageous look that shows us all that we can potentially be both good and bad.  I would suggest to you that the deepest challenge of the Gospel is not the challenge to accept the potential for evil that lies within us—the greater challenge is to recognize all our potential for evil and look beyond that to see what good we can, with God’s help, also accomplish. 
     All of us have pieces of our lives that are out of control.  Perhaps it is our alcohol consumption, perhaps it’s our need to protect another and keep them from harm’s way.  It may be our creeping fears of a world out of control, our thirst for power and safety, our love of food and creature comforts, our desire to be accepted, our unquenchable need to succeed or our near phobic fear of failure.  Wherever we are on our life path, seeing the truth about our lives and placing ourselves in God’s hands is the work that God invites us to.  And when we are up to that work.  When we trust God enough to be truthful with ourselves and one another, then we too can say as the members of the early church did, “We do not only preach great things, we live them!”   I invite you all to hear these words again for your own life and to enter into a day when you too are called to do great things!
1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

     We are all called by God each day to a new day, a new dawn, a new spiritual awakening.  May God be with you in your times of sleep and in your own new moments of awakening!

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