September 23, 2018
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
This morning’s lessons are rich. Most of us want to skip that Old Testament reading, though. If you happen to be a wife and a preacher, it is tempting to either use this moment to beg to be recognized for all the ways you are like this list of perfect attributes of wives. Or, you are tempted to skip the whole thing in fear of being measured next to this list and coming up short. I mean, who could be that perfect?
If you are a husband and haven’t praised your wife or are tempted to measure all her weaknesses up against this poem, then maybe you’d better skip it too!
There was a retired Rabbi in the town I lived in in Georgia who gave me an insight into much of the Hebrew Bible. That’s that part of the Bible we call the “Old Testament.”
He was a congenial presence around the town and served as a City Councilman. I learned about a practice behind Proverbs 31 that I’ve appreciated ever since. “Each Sabbath evening,” the Rabbi said, “I recite the poem in Proverbs 31 to my wife. It begins ‘A good wife who can find…’ and it ends with the husband addressing his wife directly, in a ‘you’ statement: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all (verse 29).”
This meant that once a week, after reciting an alphabet full of statements about your good wife, you look her in the eyes and switch to a “you” statement saying, in effect, “There are lots of great women around. But baby, you’re the best of them all!” This text is often cited at weddings when the priest suggests that it would be a good practice for each married person to praise their spouse, at least once a week!
The woman described in this Proverb is in charge of managing the household. She gets up early and has prepared the tasks to be assigned to her staff (Proverbs 31:14-15). She deals in real estate (verse 16). Snow does not frighten her. She has prepared proper clothing to protect from the stormy weather. Her husband is a known and respected member of the community (verse 23). She has a well-tuned sense of humor, knowing when to laugh and when to be more reserved (verse 25). She is industrious, working into the night (verses 15, 18). She is concerned for the poor and the needy (verse 20) and of course, for her own family (verses 21-22, 27). She is a Godly woman, deserving of the praise of her children, her husband, and the community (verses 28-31). Finally, this good woman speaks words of wisdom, wisely (verse 26).
So, as a wife sitting with this text this week, I was left feeling a bit disappointed in myself. I’m not even half of that list!
I had another moment of self-disappointment this week. This one in the music festival I participated in. It was a four-day-long Bluegrass Jam Camp. They call it a camp because it’s fun - like summer camp only for adults and with comfortable beds. The food was really good too!
It’s an immersion exercise. Some adults take their vacations and go to immersion’s in languages like one of my friends who spends a whole week at Sewanee speaking only in German. That does not sound like camp to me. But immersion in playing the mandolin is fun to me..
Like camp, there is, of course, a talent show of sorts on the last night. Everyone is encouraged to join a small group that afternoon and work up a couple of songs to perform in front of the whole assembly. There is not enough time to rehearse and so you are sort of thrown into having to think on your feet. That is part of the exercise. We each make fools of ourselves but it is in a friendly room because everyone is being foolish - all for the sake of learning.
This year, one of the running conversation topics was that feeling you get when you succeed. For us it was when something clicked in a technique or melody or harmony. Someone said that when you finally get it, it’s like a religious experience. I laughed, thinking to myself that we, in the church, call those mountaintop experiences or thin places. Those ore the times we feel closest to God.
My new friend Charles is a filmmaker from the Raleigh area. He also does a lot of work as a motivational speaker. (He did not seek this type of work, it found him because he just has the gifts for it.) I complimented his singing the next morning before we departed and he talked at length about what he has learned about such exercises.
Here’s what he said: “Vulnerability is scary and often dangerous. But if we can be vulnerable with each other we always benefit, grow and learn.” Charles went on to say that he believes all people of all ages are simply looking for validation. At this point in our conversation, as he talked about this, he began to weep. He talked about the ways we find validation and how desperately most of us need it. And then he said, “And it’s everywhere around us if we’ll just accept it!”
There are moments in life, those special moments when we encounter Christ in others. Call it a religious experience, a mountaintop or a thin place, this was one of those moments. But, as these moments often go, I didn’t recognize it until later. I just stared and tried to make sense of what Charles was saying and why it was making him weep.
At lunch that day, our last meal together, Susan, another camp friend said, out of the blue, “Kathy, your solo last night was amazing, it was fantastic! No, really I mean it was great and so was your singing!” I sat agape looking at Susan and said, “That’s hilarious! I thought I completely bombed. I thought that was a terrible solo and that I was awful!”
We laughed and I told her about what Charles said and then we talked about how dumb we all can be in not recognizing our own successes and how much we need each other for honest feedback.
When Jesus busts his disciples for arguing about who is the greatest he takes the opportunity as a teaching moment. Rabbi’s sit to teach. So he sat down and took a little child into his lap and tried to get across to them his theology of “the first shall be last.”
One scholar I read this week told of a joke in her church in which they sometimes refer to the disciples as the “duh-ciples.” As in, Duh! Because, especially in Mark, they often seem so dumb!
But when they seem dumb, the disciples are actually being vulnerable for learning and they are able to make fools of themselves for Christ because of the love Jesus has taught them to practice. There’s love between them enough to make and learn from mistakes.
But it is the child in this story that got me the most.
I am quite proud of the fact that we care very much about the children in our community. Just take a look around at the people in the pews next to you and you will find in this parish lots of workers and advocates of children. From the school board to making blankets to supporting The Boys Home, we care about the safety, education and love of children at Grace Church. So, if Jesus is suggesting that we need to consider these little ones who have no rights, he’s teaching to the choir.
But if Jesus were to sit down in Bisset park today to teach a grassroots, makeshift, gathering of followers - without a permit - and pick up a random child and sit the child on his lap - he would likely get arrested too early.
This seems an overreaction when you think of it that way, how teachers and child care providers can’t touch children anymore without fear of being suspected of harming the child. But it is necessary for us to be so cautious because of what has come to light about the abuse of children in our world.
(As a side note, children (and men and women) have been abused since the beginning of time. But since the dawn of the internet, we now see it more clearly because of our increased communication technologies.)
But Jesus is taking the metaphor a step further. He says, in reference to the child here, “welcome one such child in my name” and so we try to be better adults. But perhaps we need to consider also being the child that is welcomed.
The model Jesus gives us in this lesson from Mark, of being kind to children is difficult enough. To be childlike is even more difficult for us. We are better at being child-ish - you know, demanding, temper tantrums to get our way, bullying peers to make ourselves feel better. Or maybe not al of us act in these ways, still we each risk the childish behavior of needing attention and validation.
Charles was right. We are all in need of validation.
A young child who dies and goes to Heaven. He is at the Pearly Gates, met by St. Peter himself. However, the gates are closed, and he approaches the gatekeeper.
St. Peter says, “Well, Ian, we have heard a lot about you. Unfortunately, the place is filling up fast, and we have been giving an entrance exam for everyone. the test is short, but you have to pass it before you can get into Heaven.”
Ian responds, “Nobody ever told me about any entrance exam. I sure hope that the test isn’t too hard. I’m not very good at tests.”
St. Peter continues, “It’ll be okay. It’s only three questions.”
“First: What two days of the week begin with the letter ’T’?”
“Second: How many seconds are there in a year?”
“Third: What is God’s first name?”
Ian leaves to think the questions over. He returns the next day and sees St. Peter, who waves him up, and says, “Now that you have had a chance to think the questions over, tell me your answers.”
Ian replies, “Well, the first one - which two days in the week begin with the letter ’T’? Shucks, that one is easy. That would be today and tomorrow.”
The Saint’s eyes open wide, and he exclaims, “Well, that is not what I was thinking, but you do have a point, and I guess I did not specify, so I will give you credit for that answer. How about the next on?” asks St. Peter.
“How many seconds in a year? Now that one is harder,” replies Ian. “But I thought and thought about that, and I guess the only answer can be twelve.”
Astounded, St. Peter says, “Twelve? Twelve? Ian, how in Heaven’s name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?”
Ian replies, “Shucks, there’s got to be twelve: January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd, . . . “
“Hold it,” interrupts St. Peter. “I see where you are going with this, and I see our point, though that was not quite what I had in mind . . . but I will have to give you credit for that one too. Let us go on with the third and final question. Can you tell me God’s first name?”
“Sure,” Ian replies, “it’s Andy.”
“Andy?” exclaims an exasperated and frustrated St. Peter.
“Okay, I can understand how you came up with your answers to my first two questions, but just how in the world did you come up with the name Andy as the first name of God?”
“Shucks, that was the easiest one of all,” Ian replies. I learned it from the song: ‘Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own . . .’”
St. Peter opens the Pearly Gates, and says, “Welcome to Heaven.”
Even as a saint guarding the Heavenly Gates, Peter’s expectations are completely opposite of what actually happens. The disciples were often wrong about what to expect from Jesus and the Kingdom of God. And so are we. There is nothing conventional about who Jesus is or what the Kingdom is that he is ushering in. It is the same for Peter and Ian in this story. Ian does not answer any questions conventionally and is welcomed into heaven anyway.
We would do well to be like Ian, child-like rather than child-ish. And we would do well to ease up on our expectations of each other and offer each other praise and validation.
In the end it is a room full of love and friendship that can get even the worst banjo player through a round of Jimmy Crack Corn. And life is best lived when we are all growing and learning.
Thanks be to God.