Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Readings for Proper 20 (25) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

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Proper 20B/Ordinary 25B/Pentecost 24 September, 2006 Textweek

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I was being quite naughty during the first reading and just watching people’s response – ‘a capable wife, who can find?’ – just wondered where you were going with that reading. ‘A capable wife, who can find?’ It is a reading of truth, after all it comes from the Bible; reading it today though, and in the present age, it’s quite a delightful reading because it enables us to appreciate that it was written in another context, in another age and in another world. You can just get the feel of it as you read through it, when you look at the tasks this wife was called to perform. When we look at it and get some idea of the scope of where the wife was in relation to the husband, we know that this came from a different era. This truth was written when the truth was that the world is flat, that’s when this truth was written, and some, because it’s in the Bible, still hold it to be the truth, the truth, the word of God – ‘this is the truth as it is and always will be’. I say this is a truth of another age - it is a truth, it is not the truth and therefore it is not necessarily our truth. We actually have to go a step further and not just accept what’s there on the surface but look beyond and find what is the truth, the word of God, in here, for me, in this age, in this moment? And although it is quite a quaint reading - it probably would sound a bit better with a few Monty Python cartoons as a backdrop to it - it does illustrate a stunningly radical theology. The divine word in this quaint little reading when we carefully look at it speaks against the political status quo and provides another, an alternative perspective on life. It opens up a totally new paradigm and so it orientates us toward the possibility of a new world order. Golly!

Verse 23 says: ‘her husband is known in the city gates taking his seat among the elders of the land’. This is the existing world order; this is the status quo - patriarchal leadership. The seat in the city gates is the seat of authority and it’s the seat of power; it belongs to the man, to the husband. But this reading speaks of the wife, the woman, the lowly caste, the powerless, the humble, the obedient servant and in Verse 30 we hear, ‘but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised and let her works praise her in the city gates’. This is a reading that is pointing out a change in the order – it is taking the lowest cast and bringing it up to equal status. This movement is unheard-of in the age that it was written, it is unthinkable, it is unimaginable. It points out that there is another way.

When we get to the psalm which is seeking to bridge the Old Testament reading with the New Testament, what we hear is ‘happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish’. It’s the first psalm in the Book of Psalms; it’s what we’d open the book with if we started to read the psalms. And the first thing we get is ‘we are called to discern the way, to discern the truth; it actually requires an engagement from us.

So now we get to the James reading and last Sunday I put in a plug for the letter of James, it’s a great letter. The interesting thing this week is we almost had last Sunday’s letter again and the reason being when I produced the roster that has got all the readings on it, I took the Australian Anglican Lectionary – a little book that has got all the readings for the whole year in it and it’s based on the Revised Common Lectionary. Being a little bit slack when I download the readings week by week, I grab them off the net, off the Revised Common Lectionary. So last week, unbeknown to me, we had this week’s reading from James. Now this is really odd and I’ve spent this week looking at lectionaries, lining them up on the screen thinking, where did things go wrong? For some reason in the Australian Lectionary we’ve just shifted the reading along, put another one in the place of the one that we heard today, and then we go back to the Revised Common Lectionary; I have no idea why. Things like that are always interesting to me because it means, Hey, take some notice here, look closer at it.

The reading from the Revised Common Lectionary just fits so well in the flow. Last week’s reading was the reading about the tongue, the smallest of members and yet the rudder that steers the ship – be careful about the tongue. This week James is talking about something fairly close to my heart – arrogance. This is what James says: ‘For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.’ Was James writing this for today? Envy and selfish ambition – these are creative of disorder and wickedness. Where do we find disorder and wickedness, now let me think? Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan. Envy? Oil. Selfish ambition? The economic empires of the West. ‘Well done,’ says James, ‘you can tick the box for that’. Now listen again, let’s go a few verses forward: ‘Those conflicts and disputes among you, where so they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are all within you?’ We actually get it in two lots – the first time is to bring to our attention the cause of disorder and wickedness, and we look out, then James says, ‘look in, now look within’. ‘You want something and you do not have it and you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it so you engage in disputes and conflicts’. My guess is that when this was written there wasn’t in his mind the disputes and conflicts that were on the grand scale in the contemporary world, or maybe there was. One thing must be clear – surely we can hear these words as being addressed to us in the present moment. And the gospel seems to be just as contemporary as the reading that we had from James.

The gospel reading has again got some movement in it – they went on from there and passed through Galilee. This is not the gospel of standing still; they didn’t just go to church and sit down, this is the gospel of movement. Verse 32 says ‘They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him’. The narrator here is talking about the disciples; the amazing thing is, it describes so well most of present day Christianity. They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask – ‘let’s just leave it alone, the priest can look after that. We’ll go in on Sunday and just leave it; I don’t really want to go there, I don’t want to ask’. Verse 34 says they were silent, because they had argued with one another as to who was the greatest. With synod only two weeks away and the level of debate that we have in the church at the current time, this seems to be a present day phenomenon – they were silent, because they were busy arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.

Maybe Jesus isn’t addressing the disciples moving through Galilee at all, maybe he’s talking to us, directly to us, in the present moment, in the present day. And his words to us come to a climax at the end of the gospel reading. ‘He sat down and he called the twelve.’ He is no longer interested in addressing the crowd; at this point he’s given up on the crowd, now he seeks to address the twelve. The teaching – it’s good to get this – the teaching is not for everybody, it’s for the few. These words of teaching, these words of encouragement are for the leaven in the lump. He called the twelve and sat down with them and he said to them, ‘whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’. Doh! This is a new paradigm, this is the woman in the gate where once only the men sat, this is the call to serve, the call to give of ourselves to give to creation, to be imitators of God, in the image of God, co-creating with the divine, in and through love. Now having spoken it, Jesus puts his words into action – the word became flesh - he took a little child. He put it among them and taking it in his arms and he said to them, ‘whoever welcomes one of these in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ Whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me – we’re not called to worship Christ. That isn’t the place that we need to stop. We’re called to follow, for it is ‘the one who sent me’ that we are called to en-flesh. And then as it says right at the beginning, ‘he will rise again’. I followed a car - Friday I think it was - it had a bumper sticker on the back saying ‘Jesus is the answer’. I couldn’t help wondering if the driver had any idea what the question was.

The divine gift of life is creation and its creatures. Verse 31 says this has been betrayed into human hands. At Christmas that gift, that same gift was given, was given. Betrayed into human hands. Humanity is made in the image of the divine, we are the imitation of Christ. But in verse 32, ‘they did not understand and were afraid’. Many of God’s children are silent and are afraid. Others, in verse 34 they’d argued among themselves as to who was the greatest. They argued so hard that greatness itself became a distortion, the Son of Man is betrayed and killed; the gift is profaned. In Verse 31 there is hope: ‘the son of man will rise again’. This is not a divine promise, it is a divine gift and its realisation is in its hands

Whether given or betrayed, the realization is in our hands, and how will it come to be? Verse 35, ‘whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ The world changes, the world changes completely when we put the whole before the self.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris.