Remember when I said that I preached at Robyn’s church? Robyn (in full-blown Wedding Brain) says to me the day before, “Oh, I told everyone that your sermon would be up on your blog. Because they really want to read it.” (Then, I made her stand next to a statue of a horse so I could take her picture. I’m such a good maid of honor–It’s going on my resume.)
I think, “Oh, crap. This means I actually have to write it all down now.”
Here’s what I said (more or less.)
September 20, 2015
Year B, Ordinary Time, Proper 20
Anglican Church of Canada
Proverbs 31, Mark 8
When I was a kid, my mother looked forward to Mother’s Day with great enthusiasm. She would accept the handmade cards, and the sloppy pancakes and orange juice breakfasts from my brother and I, but her favorite part was her own invention. She requested that whenever she wanted, on that day, Aaron and I had to stand up, point to her, and say this thing.
Accordingly, several times during the day, in the middle of dinner, before bed, whenever, Mom would say, “Ok, do it!” And Aaron and I would gamely stand up, point a finger at her, and repeat, like devout myna birds, “Blessed! Blessed!”
Mom thought this was just the best thing ever. She was a very literal soul, and she could imagine no higher honor.
This passage from Proverbs 31 has long been held up as the benchmark for successful womanhood in some circles. I was joking with Robyn earlier this week that evidently, the Holy Spirit has clearly been playing a trick on her, with this passage in the lectionary the week of her wedding, because for a lot of people, this is what the perfect wife was. It’s like the prototypical Good Housekeeping or Cosmopolitan. Here’s what you should be! Here’s what you should aspire to!
And not unlike today’s fashion magazines, it’s an overwhelming and terrifying standard that probably only imaginary people can actually meet.
This woman here described manages a successful household perfectly, she has happy children and marriage, she cooks, she spins, she manages land deals, she gets up before dawn, she makes clothing and basically runs the city. No big deal. Anyone can manage THAT.
Pardon me I’m going to go lie down for a nap.
It’s important to note here, that no scholar thinks this laundry list is proscriptive. That is—it’s not a list of what someone MUST do to be a good woman. It’s descriptive: women who are capable—and I’m going to come back to that word in a second—do stuff like this. Stuff like this is said about them, they manage things like this…but not all of this, not all of the time.
And note, too, that this is a really varied list. Trading for land! Running businesses! Raising kids! Supporting a household! When you separate out the aspirational woman-quality we sometimes read into this, it’s pretty amazing. All these different images of women, all being blessed and happy.
All being ‘capable’—which is not a fantastic word from the Hebrew, actually. A better word is ‘valiant’. The Hebrew roughly translates as ‘a woman of valor’—this idea that binds that varied list together. ‘A woman of valor can be found possibly doing all these amazing things, just generally being amazing—sort of a murky term, but a strong word. A strong idea.
‘A woman of valor is clothed with strength and dignity, she laughs at what’s to come.”
So instead of glorifying beauty, grace, meekness, or any other stereotypical Good Housekeeping-type word—this passage praises valor. Strength. as the one unifying trait of the righteous individual.
Because if you glance over at the disciples this week, they’re not quite the picture of strength. The disciples have just witnessed Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus’ immediate announcement that because of this fact, he’s going to have to be tried and killed in Jerusalem.
They react badly to this news (as they do to most things.) Peter tries to talk Jesus out of it (that doesn’t go well) and then, when Jesus reasserts that he actually will have to die, the disciples still won’t listen. They ignore him. They grumble. Thinking maybe they can change it, or maybe denial is the way to go—and they get in on this conversation about which among them is the greatest.
Because surely a really great, a really strong man can avoid this sort of suffering and death.
The disciples’ notion of what constitutes strength and greatness is different than Jesus’.….and I wager it is different than the writer of Proverbs.
They have been trying to avoid the truth of where Jesus is calling them. They have been trying to deny, to cover it up, to bluster through it. They want to find strength where the world tells us it lies–in bluster, in ego, in pushing through it, in force.
Yet Jesus, when confronted with their arrogance, holds up a little child, and asks them, and us, to face the world like that—with vulnerably. Without pretense or anything the world would call greatness. To embrace what’s coming with vulnerability. Because this is where true strength, true valor lie.
The strength of the child, and the valor of Proverbs don’t lie in anything like what the world calls greatness. They don’t like in wealth, or the amazing ability to be better than everyone else. They lie in a deep sense of knowing who God is, and who you are. That’s it.
Because when you know that, then what can the world do to you? When you know who you are—that you are a beloved child of God, made good, made worthy, made in the image of God—when you know who God is, that God loves you indescribably, that God wills the world into goodness and redemption and calls us to recreate it with him, that nothing can separate us from this divine love—then no power in the world can shake you.
No laundry list of expectations can trouble you. No suffering can deingrate you. No outside voice can make you feel other than what you know yourself to be.
It is that inner certainty, that inner conviction in the love of God, and the worthiness of ourselves that gives us the strength to take up our cross and go to Jerusalem. To reach out our arms and embrace a suffering world. To love the world around us, as we are already loved.
It is only when we know ourselves to be deeply loved that we are able to rise and be valiant indeed.