The Perfect Woman – Sermon Sept. 20, 2015 United Ministry of Aurora
I love the Internet. Occasionally I stay up too late following one link after another, sort of surfing along wherever the tide takes me. If I’m up too late, my wife, Katie, senses I am not yet in bed, comes to find me and often asks, “Have you come to the end of the Internet yet?”
Our first reading from Proverbs today is about the Perfect Woman. I wanted to see how we think about The Perfect Woman today. So, of course, to the Internet!. I googled the “Perfect Woman.” Every link had words like; Body, Look, Fashion, Style, Beauty, Shape. Headlines at one site were; How to Stop Your Neck from Looking Saggy. How to Stop Getting Split Ends Once and for All. 9 Beauty Lessons I learned from my Cat. And, this was at a website called “Women’s Health”!
Proverbs 31 seems to be describing a very different sort of woman. “A wife far more precious than jewels, who seeks wool and flax and works with willing hands… The heart of her husband trusts her. She does him good and not harm, all the days of her life.”
These don’t sound much like the characteristics we tend to value highly. The Bible goes on to slam what we value… “Charm is deceitful; Beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised… Let her works praise her in the city gates.”
Okay, nice short sermon, maybe a little sexist. But there’s more… We’ve discussed how the Bible speaks to us at multiple levels. How it teaches with hints and glimpses that stretch our minds. This proverb seems to be explaining the virtues of a good woman. But, some things sound curious, almost more what we expect of the man’s traditional role… “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong.”
The proverb begins, “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” Why the word, “wife?” why not “women?” Don’t single working women have at least as much to recommend them? Why do the words, “wife, marriage, bride?” appear so often in scripture, and even in Jesus parables?
As always we search for hints, glimpses and connections in Scripture. The scriptures use indirection - not misdirection - to open our minds a bit. So, let’s make some quick connections. Remember Song of Songs? That wasn’t a Romeo wooing his Juliet. That was God appreciating his creation, loving it – and us – and taking pleasure in us. The Church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. Jesus presents the parable of the ten virgins waiting all night for the bridegroom to come; he also says, “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?“
Aha! Guys – he’s talking to us as well. We are the Bride of Christ. Single women, students, widows, young men, old men, husbands, wives, little children. Yes, it’s a soliloquy on the perfect wife, but it is also a parable of the Church. If we define what the Church is, it is the unified body of Christ. We are all the Bride of Christ.
When we read this proverb with a slightly different perspective, then, we can see this is God’s charge to each of us, not just to the perfect wife: “She opens her mouth with Wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. … Her children rise up and call her Happy, Blessed; her husband too, and he praises her. ”
Who are these children of the Church? Our children are those we serve. Each other and strangers. And who is her husband who praises her? God, her husband, praises her. Okay, that was a little example of spiritual mind-stretch. Scripture does that. Yes, it means the one thing, the story; but yes, it also points us beyond.
Proverbs is a practical book of instructions on how to live a rich and happy life. Like all of the Old Testament, Proverbs is also a mystical book pointing to the future and to eternity. Proverbs was probably written around the time of King Solomon, about 1,000 years before Jesus. Many of the proverbs are attributed to Solomon, who as we know, asked God for Wisdom and discernment, which God granted him. It makes sense to pay attention to this Wisdom.
Our second reading, the Epistle of James, was probably written sometime between 40 and 50 AD. Most Christians are Jews at this point, and James is writing to these Jewish Christians, the Twelve Tribes of the diaspora. These were poor Jews, essentially oppressed immigrants scattered abroad. Their home country like the cities they lived in were under occupation by the most powerful military nation in the world, Rome. James’ letter was both an encouragement to keep the new faith, and a practical teaching of how to do it. Think of James as a letter of practical wisdom. We tend to reduce James to a single issue; faith versus works. But James, much like Proverbs, is a book of very practical as well as mystical wisdom.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” James cautions against the evils of envy and selfish ambition. No surprise, there was dissension, argument, conflict, envy and ambition going on in the early Christian Church. James crisply points out these problems come from cravings that are at war inside each of us. We want, we covet, we’re thwarted at getting it, so we argue and fight. James cautions the Church, you are not getting because you do not ask. Or, you ask but do not get it because you are asking for the wrong thing. You are asking for things that give your craving animal self satisfaction and pleasure. The cure? The wisdom? Repent. Turn your face in another direction. James says, “Submit yourself to God, and resist the devil. If you do this, the devil will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” Simple practical wisdom, try God, ask God. But we are reluctant.
This wisdom builds to our reading from Mark’s Gospel. The Context: Jesus is teaching his disciples shortly after the transfiguration where James, John and Peter witnessed Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus. Coming down from the mountain they rejoin the other disciples, who are arguing with Pharisees. Jesus rebukes them for arguing. But a man in the crowd gets right to the point. He asks Jesus if he can drive a demon from his son. Jesus says, “If I can? Everything is possible for one who believes.” The man had questions about whether Jesus could do this. The disciples had tried and failed. Jesus drives out the demon and the disciples asked why they weren’t able to do that. Jesus further rebukes his disciples because they had not exercised sufficient faith and prayer. They still didn’t fully understand.
That brings us to today's reading: Passing through Galilee, Jesus keeps a low profile because he wants to work on teaching his disciples, not more miracles for the crowds. Jesus explains about his coming death and resurrection. Not only did the disciples still not understand; worse, they were afraid to ask.
Finally they reach Capernaum, a poor little fishing village at the north of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks what they had been arguing about on the road. The disciples keep their mouths shut because they are embarrassed. What were they arguing about? Which of them was “the greatest.” Some things never change. Again, Jesus tries to teach them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” A tough lesson, so Jesus places a child among them as an example.
Here’s a hint, a glimpse, Jesus points to a child. In all three synoptic gospels Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Peter didn’t understand; the disciples and the early Church didn’t understand. And through history, we continue to not fully understand.
The Perfect Woman. Body, Look, Fashion, Style, Beauty, Shape. How to Stop Your Neck from Looking Saggy. How to Stop Getting Split Ends Once and for All. 9 Beauty Lessons I learned from my Cat.
Christianity turns the world on its head. But the world likes it right side up. Much of the world likes to use religion to help accomplish worldly ends. The prosperity gospel is an extreme – pay up and get rich. Religion as a high return hedge fund. The disciples didn’t fully understand, and they were with Jesus in person for three years! It’s no wonder we have trouble understanding. But, let’s be honest. There is an apparent conflict between Jesus’ teaching and success in our careers – isn’t there?
I’ve heard people say it’s impossible to live like Jesus in today’s world. Nice ideals, but impractical. Family, bills, tuition, downsizing at work, corporate pressure, tenure track, poor market returns, taxes to pay. How can you avoid being ambitious, trying to get ahead, taking every advantage you can? Sure it would be nice to quit work and just contemplate the beauty of God’s creation, but get real! This is a dog eat dog economy we’re in!
It took time and help from the Holy Spirit, but the disciples finally did get the message. The message? Here is a clue from James: It has to do with being double-minded. In the first chapter, James says, “ If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.
What is a double-minded person? A double-minded person separates the wisdom of God from the practicality of living in the world – as if these are two different arenas. The double-minded person thinks and acts as if the world, the job, the problems, the career are one sphere; and Church, Bible-study, prayer and charitable works are another sphere completely.
James tells us to let God in. Let God in to our job, our career, our bills, our family problems, our illness, our fears. Let God in and ask in faith that the best be done. Not my will, but thine. We either don’t ask, or we ask incorrectly. We don’t ask because we are not yet in extremis or in fear for our life; or we don’t ask because we really don’t believe God wants to get involved in our workaday life. Or, we don’t really believe God can do the impossible. Or, we don’t ask correctly. We ask God to help us clobber the competition, not to help us do our best. We ask that our ends and goals get accomplished, and, literally, to hell with the other person. It’s as if we changed the Lord’s Prayer to, “Thy kingdom come, my will be done.”
Why does Jesus point to a child? The child is single-minded, not yet full of cynicism and doubt; the child is imaginative, ready for surprise, open to believe there is more to reality than meets the eye. It seems the only ones who immediately understood who Jesus was and what he could do were the demons he drove from the afflicted. Why? The demons are single minded. They have a job to do, and they are committed to doing it. I think demons can see clearly. Of course they recognize Jesus. They are not befogged by juggling the problems of living and following the orders of their boss, the Devil. The demons are single minded and evil, the way a four or five year old child is single minded and, for the most part, good.
So, what does this all mean? Let’s sum up: when Jesus instructs us to be like a child, he is instructing us to be single-minded, to believe God fervently, put God first and everywhere. Ask God for his will, for the right thing to be done in all circumstances. When you pray for someone’s health, pray believing fervently in your heart that God can heal that person. And when you pray for success in something you are trying to do, don’t pray for success at any cost – pray for success in tune with the greater purpose God wants done in this situation.
God is a God of endless surprises. Jesus reminds us not to confine God in a box or in a Church, or to our will or our expectations. Jesus tells us to let God fully into our lives and give him control. “Lift up your heads O ye ancient gates, and let the King of Glory come in.” Let’s let God in, believing he can do all things. Let’s try hard to be sure everything we ask for is in the will of God. And God can make it so. He’ll surprise you.
May God add his blessing to these words.