September 19, 2021, The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 19, 2021
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From the Letter of James, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” I speak to you in the name of God: our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

    You know, I always cringe whenever our Lectionary presents us with those words from Proverbs, “A capable wife, who can find?” I cringe because it is our natural tendency to think this entire text is limited to wives and one’s search for a capable wife. Truth be told, I am sure there are many wives that wish they could find a capable husband. But let’s not go there today. Besides, one’s search for a perfect spouse is not what this text is about.

     See, the Book of Proverbs opens with these words, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7) Proverbs was written as a means of instruction to young men about the importance of living and walking in the ways of God, living in a right relationship with each other and God. Thus, it is filled with admonitions to pay attention to history and the world around you, to learn from the mistakes of one’s ancestors, as well as their life experience. Now, Proverbs also instructs young men about what to look for in the perfect wife just as the Songs of Solomon counsel young women on what to look for in the perfect husband. But both books go far deeper than that. At their heart, at their core, both stress that wisdom is what everyone should seek because without wisdom, we are lost. Yet in order for wisdom to make a difference in our lives, we have to be willing to learn. See Wisdom teaches that we can have all the head knowledge we want, but if it is not understood in the heart; if it is not demonstrated in our lives, then we have not learned a thing.

     The people of Israel understood the importance of teaching their children the laws of God, the Torah, but more importantly, they understood that words are one thing, actions are another. The Psalmist says happy are they who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night. This law of the Lord, God’s way of life, that not only urges us to love God with all our hearts and minds, but also, love our neighbors as ourselves, according to the Psalmist, is the key to spiritual prosperity. Those who allow God’s law to permeate their souls, their very being, become like trees with deep roots firmly planted so that in times of famine and scarcity they not only survive, they blossom and bear fruit. This is true in times of both physical famine and spiritual scarcity. God’s law, God’s way of life, is timeless, and God’s people would do well to study it so deeply that it becomes who we are and consistently demonstrated in our life choices.

     So, returning to our reading from Proverbs we need to remember that Wisdom in scripture is always spoken of in feminine terms. So much so, in chapter 31, Wisdom is described as a real woman, a capable wife, but such is the external message. The internal message is that we need to adopt the qualities of wisdom in order to make right decisions in life. So, hear this lesson not as instruction about wives, but rather, about the incredible gift Wisdom is to the world. See, it is Wisdom that tells us looks are deceiving not only in human appearance, but in human behavior and motives as well. How often do folks claim to be people of deep faith, but their behavior, their motives, suggest otherwise: You know, they are observed compassionately helping someone in need as long as the cameras are rolling. That’s why our passage ends with this powerful phrase, “(Wisdom’s) works speak for themselves” or in the words of that old adage, “the proof is in the pudding.” Wisdom teaches that one’s works must demonstrate God’s way of life, God’s Law – that law about unconditional and welcoming love, otherwise, our actions, will become self-serving ways to make us look more important or better than our neighbors: the very neighbors we are told to love as much as we love and care for our own selves. Proverbs tells all of us, seek Wisdom so that we choose wisely and remember to walk and live in the Ways of God; walk and live God’s law.

    James, in his letter to the Church, asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Certainly not those who boast and brag about it. He goes on to say that it is our lives that demonstrate true wisdom and understanding, notour words. He says, “Show it by your good life with works done with gentleness that is born of wisdom. He goes on to speak about the dangers of envy and ambition, seeking to become important in the eyes of others rather than being humble before God. James describes wisdom as pure. And because wisdom is pure, it is also peaceable, gentle, willing to yield – even when you are certain you are right – and full of mercy and good fruit. Wisdom has no trace of partiality or favoritism and is not hypocritical. James goes on to speak about the dreadful situation in the churches of his day. There was coveting, stealing, arguing, people suing each other, and a host of other conflicts including murder all of which, James says, are born from a spirit of envy and self-ambition, born of the devil and we must flee from it. James tells the church and us, “draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” He says choose wisely because such choices bring not only peace, but a full and bountiful harvest of peace. Happy are they who delight in the law of the Lord and do not seek their own gain.

     In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark, the disciples quibble over who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were perplexed by Jesus’ statement that he must die and will die in Jerusalem. This was scandalous talk because it upset everything the disciples were taught and believed about the Messiah. The Messiah is supposed to arrive with his sword drawn conquering their enemies and becoming Israel’s new king. So, they were confused and as is typical in times of confusion, lapsed into old behavior trying to figure out who will be greatest among them, who will be closest to God, closest to Jesus, in heaven. Theologian Frederick Grant describes their quibbling as a demonstration of one of the most tragic questions for humanity throughout the ages: Who shall be the greatest? Or Will God recognize that I am better than you? Wars and incredible human suffering are often the fruit of those seeking to be the greatest. Even modern-day advertising feeds upon our human desire to be better than others, to puff ourselves up. Advertising tells us that if we will just use this particular fragrance, we will be more attractive than others. Drive this car and you will be more successful. Wear this brand of clothing and you will look better than anyone else and so on.

     Jesus hears the disciple’s chatter and tosses them a curve ball saying, “Whoever will be first must become last. They must become servant of all.” Now, his words have upset their understanding of the social order. That order says the conquering hero always leads the people, the king in all his pomp rides ahead of others, the rich always receive preferential treatment, the smartest and brightest get all the rewards. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He can see the confusion on their faces and in response, takes a child and places it in the center of their midst. Then taking the child in his arms, he says, “Whoever welcomes one child in my name welcomes me.” A child, the symbol of humankind’s total vulnerability, the symbol of innocence and trust, the one being on the face of the earth who cannot provide for, nor sustain nor protect themself, Jesus says, will be the greatest. Children, the lowest rank in the hierarchy of ancient Palestine, are, in God’s Kingdom, elevated to the highest rank. Children, the poorest and most vulnerable and humble are the greatest? Now, the disciples are even more confused, and this is the great paradox of the Gospel according to Mark. Repeatedly, those closest to Jesus miss his point while those on the outside: the lame, the poor, the sick, the children, the women, the outcasts, the gentiles, - all these seemingly second-class citizens - “get it.” They recognize Jesus for who he is and do so very quickly. Later, Jesus will say that we must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of God. We need to see ourselves for who we really are: vulnerable and helpless without God. Then and only then, can wisdom truly direct us to walk in God’s ways. Then and only then, when egos are subdued and, as James says, our hearts are in the right place and in right relationship, can we be at peace with God and our neighbor.

     God’s Law teaches us how to, and why we should seek to live in right relationships with God and neighbor – not just on Sundays, but at all times. And Wisdom is the fruit of those who embrace God’s law as demonstrated in hearts filled with one’s love for God and neighbor. Wisdom affirms that we can have everything in the world, but if God’s law, God’s way of life, has not permeated our very being, we will miss the kingdom of God.      

     But here is the good news in our scripture texts this morning: even if we do forget God’s law, God’s way of life, (and we will), God’s wisdom, God’s love and grace revealed and demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ, promises that if we will “draw near to God … God will draw near to us, to you”. And that nearness of God, that closeness of God, beloved, is Wisdom’s gift and it is greater than any place of honor we might imagine, even in the kingdom of heaven.

     “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” By God’s grace may this be true for us and in us. Amen.