Weekly Preaching September 19, 2021

September 14th, 2021

Proverbs 31:10-31. This text makes me shiver a little, as I’ve heard it trotted out so often, especially at funerals, to praise a wife or mom – not wrongly--but this long and eloquent poem about the best wife ever packs its surprises. The Hebrew hayil means “powerful, valiant, heroic.” Then Davis, in Preaching the Luminous Word, counters the way we might scoff over gender roles here, noting not only the power of this woman but also that she stands as a challenge to us with her prosperous household-based economy, given our vision that value is only had outside the home.

This poem is an acrostic: the first line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second line with the second letter, etc. She is praised “from A to Z.” But is she too good to be true? Don’t we exaggerate to flatter the one we admire? Does this poem, written in an ancient, agricultural milieu, even make sense in our world? Or can we, as the theologians of old did, read this woman as the ideal Church, the bride of Christ? Can we see this idealized woman as the ideal for Israel as a people?

In speaking of wives, Proverbs has its dismissive moments (19:13, 21:19, 27:16). Here we see that wisdom is also (and more so) taking time to praise, thank, and honor verbally the one you love. No one gets too much encouragement. Love is noticing and then articulating the beauty and light in the beloved.


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James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a. I’ve not typically preached much on these seemingly moralizing texts, fearing I’d let grace and the resurrection slip out of view and reduce Christianity to being nice or good. But in our day, many people are clueless about how to be nice or good, much less holy. This text is about wisdom, something no one bothers to pursue much. We know smart people. We strut around with our political ideology – which makes no pretension to wisdom.

The brother of our Lord distinguished between the wisdom from above (this is the beautiful gift in James 1:17?) with “earthbound, unspiritual, demonic” pseudo-wisdom. Maybe we’d call it “conventional wisdom,” those truisms trotted out by society that might appear on posters or bumper stickers and muttered mindlessly at a self-help convention. Just not of God. A sermon could recount many of them, the kinds of things that make people nod, but mask an underlying pattern of thought that is contrary to James’s brother’s way.

As Jesus’ brother, James had to have felt intense jealousy when the crowds packed in around him – but then maybe not so jealous when they flogged and crucified him. Ambition? Jesus semi-failed in his, or at least in the ambition of others for him. James’s letter says “If you have jealousy and ambition, don’t lie against the truth.” Thomas Merton, in a lovely journal entry back in 1951, wrote, “As long as I do not pretend, as long as I do not trade in false coin nor camp too much upon flowers, prayers can always mend me. The windows are open. Let the Psalms fly in.” James learned to speak of “wisdom’s meekness” (verse 13), with clear echoes of Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matt. 5:5) – which James just might have heard! Did he know of Paul’s thoughts on the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23)? Verse 17 suggests that wisdom is “open to persuasion, filled with mercy and good fruits.” There are those fruits, and the mercy. And “open to persuasion.” We think it’s godly or patriotic or whatever to have everything figured out, the trap door of the soul slammed shut and the key thrown away. But the wise are always listening, learning, open – like Merton’s windows!

Mark 9:30-37. I grin, even chuckle a little over our beloved disciples in this text. Jesus talks. They’re baffled – but “they were afraid to ask.” So many things we need to ask about but do not – for fear of looking dumb? For fear the answer might not be our preferred answer? That the truth might cost us something?

Then Jesus overhears them chatting along the road. He asks what they were talking about, but “they were silent,” afraid he’d learn and not be tickled they were bickering over “who is the greatest among them.” Peter: “I’m his favorite.” John: “Well I never did dumb stuff like you.” James: “I’m the best candidate to lead after he’s gone.” Philip: “I’m smarter than you all.” Matthew: “I’m way richer than you poor dudes.” Jockeying for position, yet with the hunch that the one they hope to sit near in glory is all about the antithesis of jockeying for position.

Not many of us serve up the braggadocio of a Muhammad Ali: “I am the greatest!” But in our insecurity and anxiety, we puff ourselves up, feeling we’re right, we’re ok, we’re going the proper way while others probably aren’t. Jesus so typically responds not by giving them a thrashing or sighing in derision. He simply takes a child playing nearby. Tradition suggests perhaps it was Peter’s son or daughter! Or some claim it was little Ignatius before he grew up to be the famous St. Ignatius of Antioch! The preacher needs to be careful before waxing too eloquently on this child business. Children are innocent? – but they swipe things, whine, pout, do the opposite of what you ask. Children are pure? – but the early Church’s theologians believed in original sin for a reason. Maybe it’s this sort of thing: children have some naivete, some openness to how things might turn out, a readiness to forgive and welcome and love and hug. Children are too little to boss big people, or anybody much. They are never afraid to ask anything! They’re no good at being secretive. They are dependent, and they know it.

We look to the children. We try to be like them. We realize we are children, immature, yes, small and vulnerable, thinking we want a gaggle of gadgets, but really we’re satisfied with just a cozy snuggle, a good book, something sweet, a game with others or a dandelion no grownup would ever even notice. Sarah Ruden’s new translation provides an interesting wrinkle: “Whoever takes in one child like this in my name takes me in.” Perhaps Jesus was thinking of the vulnerable, those who weren’t fully people in the world’s eyes, and how we give ourselves over to caring for them.

When we looked at Mark 8, we pondered Jesus being “handed over.” This verb paradidomi means handed over, betrayed – and we see Jesus remarkable shift from being a powerful actor on the stage of history to being a passive, vulnerable one acted upon by others. He put himself into the hands of betrayers and foes – and he puts himself into our hands to do with as we will. Daring? Preachable! – and true.

About the Author

James C. Howell

James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
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