When the Holy Spirit woke me up (at 4 this morning...grrr, Holy Spirit, grrr), it wasn’t visions of sugar plums that were dancing in my head. I won’t lie, I was replaying every brilliant and every dumb thing I’ve done since becoming Sherwood’s pastor a year ago today. I was praying that my brilliant moments outweighed my dumb moments, but I’m not sure it panned out that way. In one of those weird serendipitous moments, I realized that my life was falling on the pages of my Bible, which was still open to the Mark passage from yesterday. (Or maybe, the pages of my Bible were falling on my open life. Either way, they’re colliding.)
Mark’s Jesus has been stepping on my toes this morning, in surprising ways. If you had asked me, I would’ve told you that I know I’m not great. I would’ve told you what I tell my congregation when they say nice things about me: “I don’t have any idea what I’m doing, but I’m sure having fun doing it.” As a solo pastor who is quite young, the times when I feel grossly incompetent seem to far outweigh the times when I’m bubbling over with confidence. Great? Who me? Noooo.
But what I realized this morning is that while I find the idea of me being great laughable, the idea that I might someday be great is no laughing matter. I want to go to the right conferences, and meet the right people, and read the right books, and write for the right journals.
And here is Jesus--telling me that these things aren’t nearly as cool as being childlike. Excuse me? Children have done nothing-- they aren’t anybody. They don’t pray like rockstars. They’ve never even heard of the Spiritual Disciplines. If you googled a child’s name, you’d probably come up with little, besides maybe a birth announcement.
Yesterday, I would have yelled at the silly disciples for arguing about which of them was the greatest. I would have piously looked down my nose at them, because their hearts aren’t in the right place. After all, if they were so busy seeking after that position, they probably weren’t doing a great job of following after Jesus.
Yesterday, I shook my head at Jesus for talking about welcoming a child as if it was such a hard thing to do.
Today, I realize that my heart is no more holy than the disciples’ hearts. Today, I realize that the problem isn’t in “welcoming” a child, it’s really in seeing the child as possessing the same God-given potential that you see so abundantly in yourself.
We strive and strive, trying to be, and do, and achieve. But by choosing to uplift someone who “contributes” so little to society (at least in the ways that society expects to be contributed to), Jesus reminds us that those pressures are ones we place on ourselves.
Who is great among you? I think Jesus would say, “the one who stops “working” long enough to dance with me, the one who looks at me with wide eyed wonder, the one who plays well with others.”
I’m pretty sure this text will be my companion in what has become a weekly wrestling match. It will be interesting to see how the other texts fit in.
Proverbs 31:10-31 Look out, Superwoman. You and your cape are no match for Lady Wisdom!
This woman makes me feel inadequate. I can just picture her... she has a full time job, and somehow has the time to love her husband and children really well. I’d bet she’s got a hot, nutritious dinner on the table-- which, I might add, is set elegantly. There’s never anything out of place in her house, not because little robots who never mess anything up live there, but because she’s that amazing. She couldn’t be more charming if she were the Queen of England.
And quite frankly-- she makes me want to toss my cookies, which are not homemade and fresh from the oven, because I’m not superwoman.
Which I guess makes me wonder what this passage is doing in the Bible at all? Was it put in there to make women like me, who aren’t rolling in natural put-togetherness, feel bad?
As I grumpily read the description of Little Miss Perfect, I also notice that Mr. Right doesn’t even get a mention. It’s seems there’s nothing left for him to do because the Lady has already taken care of it. You know what? My husband is sooo not allowed to read this passage. Because hiswife will not ever be like this, and his wife needs (expects) help around the house.
I wonder if this is intended to be a checklist? Is this what a woman must be in order to be “good”? And if it is, how can a woman ever sleep at night, believing that’s she’s of worth? If it were a checklist, no woman would ever believe that she was successful and beloved.
I guess that leaves me to believe it’s not a checklist-- but my confession is that not only am I not super-woman, I’m not super-preacher either. Realizing that this isn’t a checklist is about as far as I got on my own. One of my favorite resources is Feasting on the Word. (If you aren’t familiar with the series, it takes each lectionary week’s texts and approaches each text from four different perspectives: Theological, Pastoral, Exegetical, and Homiletical). H. James Hopkins, in his essay on the Homiletical Perspective, said something that made sense to me. He writes, “Perhaps it will be truly good news for someone who has been beating herself up because she cannot be ‘all things to all people’ to hear that this passage simply lifts up some of the ways human beings can work together for the common good.” (Editor's note on Feasting on the Word: Lectionary Homiletics has been publishing Exegetical, Theological, Pastoral, Arts, Sermon Reviews, Homiletical perspectives on the texts since 1989 and they are all available on GoodPreacher.com...for most weeks we have over 60 of the articles.)
I don’t know that I like this lady any more than I did, but at least I slept last night, unworried that I wasn’t good enough.
I remember as a child having learned the expression, “No rest for the weary.” But my dad, who is a veritable fount of knowledge, said the expression was actually “No rest for the wicked”, and he’d always add under his breath, “And darn little for the righteous.”
This Psalm, for some reason, reminds me of those times with my dad. I remember being small enough not to know what either “righteous” or “wicked” were, but I concluded that it must be at least slightly better to be righteous.
But as it usually does, the Bible “one-ups” me. Not only is it better to be righteous than wicked, but steering clear of the wicked leads to happiness. And even better than that, the Lord himself watches over the way of the righteous, instead of leaving them to perish--as is the fate with the wicked.
This has a “The Road Not Taken” feel to it-- where there are two paths that meet, but it’s sure not possible for one person to walk both of them at the same time. In the words of Earl Smooter in Sweet Home Alabama, “You can’t ride two horses with one [rear], sugarbean.” This reminds me that the Christian life isn’t about “getting by”, it’s really an all or nothing sort of thing. You can’t be a little bit Christian, and a little bit wicked at the same time. You’re following one thing or the other (though, for sure, there will be mistakes.)
The text doesn’t mention this, and maybe I’m thinking too much, but to me, it almost asks “Who’s your daddy?” What is important to you, and where do you place your priorities? Are you the child who follows hard and fast after the good life, or are you one who resists the good life by choosing the things not of God.
It just dawned on me as I was thinking on “This Way and That” (which might be a title for a sermon if I were to preach it), that this passage also feels a little like the story of the “Prodigal Son”, as most of our Bibles title it. In one corner, you have the good older son who has always done what was right. In the other corner, the son who wandered into the ways of wickedness, and had to find out for himself that he wasn’t walking the path to the good life. The way the father is so excited to see the wandering one is, I think, supposed to be a metaphor for the way God feels when we wander off and then come back. “The way of the wicked will perish” or so says our Psalm. And I don’t think that’s God’s desire for us.
I think the fact that this is the very first Psalm is important. It’s kind of like looking at a photo album. Most of us choose a picture for the front that is kind of representative of what the rest of the pictures will be like. We tend to choose a picture that is a high point or summation for the first thing people will see. I think putting this Psalm at the front of, what has become a prayer book for many, is the same idea. This kind of sums it all up. To me, the Old Testament paints a picture of the first generations who followed God. In a lot of ways, these first generations were still learning what it was to follow big G God, and how that was different from following the gods. To put this Psalm at the front seems to be a reminder for followers to get their priorities in order. Do you follow the good path, and follow big G God, who brought you out of slavery? Or do you follow after wicked things like the Baals?
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
I’ve managed to avoid preaching toe-stepping-on James during this lectionary cycle...but here he is, still on my lectionary calendar. And still, I might add, stepping on my toes. As a beloved friend often told my dad after his sermons, “Preacher, you’ve done quit preachin’, and done gone to meddlin’.” That’s an apt descriptor for this passage--well heck, for all of James. Lukewarm brands of Christianity, that often pass for the real thing, sure don’t cut it with James.
As I look at this text, it makes an interesting pairing with Psalm 1. When I walked into the text, I wanted it to present me with a formulaic solution. I wasn’t great at math, but basic formulas always fascinated me. Where else in life does something produce the exact same result each time? It doesn’t work in relationships, that’s for sure! It would’ve been awfully nice to walk into the text and have it say to me, “If you do “A”, then you will get result “A”. If you do thing “B”, you will get result “B.”” But James doesn’t feel that way to me.
Instead, I feel like the text offers me a more “fluid” approach. It’s not “If, then”, but it seems to offer some help about what true wisdom is. As is often the case when I’m playing archeologist within the Bible, I realize how very different are Biblical ideals from the things society upholds. In a society that says “Me, me, me”, it’s almost a shock to our ears (if we’re honest) to hear that selfish ambition leads to disorder. Society says the only way to “be” anybody is by doing more, and having more, and being more. But James’ message to us is that to be wise is to seek the things that make for peace.
As a preacher, I’m often guilty of looking to see what a passage has to offer to my particular context, and just kind of “tipping my hat” at what a text might offer more globally. This James passage, though, cries out to be heard in a big way. In a war-torn time, perhaps this passage has something to say about the way culture treats culture.
This passage has always struck me as odd. First of all, we’re faced with the “Messianic Secret”, which I heard discussed thoroughly in seminary, but has never made much sense to me, at least rhetorically. Not only that, though, but we get Jesus talking about welcoming a child. Clearly, Jesus wasn’t the pastor of a small church desperately praying for children. Really, let a child show up at Sherwood... we’d roll out the red carpet, as if it was Jesus himself. I mean, if that all it takes to welcome Jesus, count us in!
I do recognize, however, that I am looking at this text with modern eyes. For our church, as is the case for many smaller, struggling churches, children represent a “safe” future. But to the ancients, I’d guess that children didn’t exactly represent the same thing. Sure, if a baby boy happened to be born, his parents nearly burst with pride because he’d be useful one day. But a toddler or small child is hardly a blessing because he can do nothing to earn his keep. Not only can he not contribute to the household, but he actually takes away from the household, because someone has to be responsible for his care, and thus has to work less.
But here, as in so many places throughout the Bible, we find that Jesus seems to value the things that are of little value to us. He chooses to uplift the vulnerable, the down, the outcasts, while we would much rather choose to uplift the strongest, most popular people that we can find.
I know this passage is largely a way to begin preparing the disciples for Jesus’ death. And while that might be a really helpful thing to preach, say, sometime after Advent (or at least when the trees start loosing their leaves), that feels like a hard way to go for me right now.
At least for me, seeing the juxtaposition of all four of these texts together, invites me to dig deep and wrestle with my congregation regarding worldly greatness vs. Christian “greatness”.
I don't have any idea which of these texts are speaking to me yet, but I guess that gives me something with which to wrestle today. At least I've done some basic digging around in them. Tomorrow, hopefully, I'll be able to pick one and start shaping it into something resembling a sermon. (KJ)