September 23, 2018
Proverbs 31:10-31; Mark 9:30-37
Pr. Craig Mueller
WHAT’S THIS ABOUT THE IDEAL WIFE?
There are many ways to meet your ideal spouse—if you ever find one, that is. Whether love at first sight, or the mystical matchmaking of an algorithm, I have performed weddings of folks who met on OKCupid, match.com and Tinder.
But here’s one of my favorite stories about finding the ideal spouse. Someone I know—let’s call him Curt—decides to use a method from a self-help book recommended by Oprah Winfrey called The Secret. It’s about the “law of attraction.” You put out to the universe your desires (and whew!) they come back to you bigtime. Curt makes a list of the 25 qualities or characteristics he wants in his next spouse and puts it out there, so to speak. Shall I mention my skepticism? Best not.
On a first date, Curt’s “list of 25” comes up in conversation. About 10:00 pm as I remember—oh, did I say that? The other guy—let’s call him Marco—playfully (and curiously) asks to see the list. As Marco skims the list of 25, he checks them off in his mind. On one he gives himself half-a-check, but generally Marco feels optimistic. Fast forward: several years later they get married! Hmmm. What shall we make of that?
Our reading from Proverbs today is a list of qualities that make up the ideal or the “capable” or “competent” wife. There are some things that have traditionally been thought of as women’s work like providing food for the household. But then there are some qualities as well: strength, dignity, wisdom, trustworthiness. One commentator suggests the overall “ideal wife” poem reinforces patriarchal stereotypes: the woman attends to the household while the man attends to matters of the intellect, such as government. This writer proposed the preacher avoid this text altogether. As you can see, I disregarded that advice. However, other scholars mention that the poem ascribes exceptional power and authority to the woman. She is a capable merchant and businesswoman.
I was surprised to learn the tradition of some Jewish men reading this poem to their wives at the Shabbat table. It has been used in Christian sermons on Mother’s Day, or at funerals and weddings to give tribute to remarkable women. Until we had it in the alternate-track lectionary this Sunday, I didn’t even know it existed. And while some scholars (and women) question whether the ideals in the poem are even possible, others wonder if it should also be applied to Lady Wisdom—the topic of last week’s sermon. It is a riddle, in a way. Is it about an ideal spouse, or wisdom, or God, or all of these? Hmm. Yes.
Let’s move past the ideal beloved. Consider the virtues you would put on a list for a friend . . a parent . . . a boss . . a pastor . . . a physician . . . an elected official . . . a news reporter . . . What would be on each of those lists?
The writer of James starts with the negative: envy and selfish ambition lead to disorder and wickedness. And then he gives us his ideal religious person: peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Lovely. But who could live up to that?
Would greatness be on your list of the ideal human being? A generation ago Muhammed Ali boasted that he was the greatest. The best-known and most controversial slogan of the 2018 election was “Make America great again.”
Jesus’ disciples get called on the carpet for arguing about who is the greatest. Here we go again, everything is a competition. Then and now. How childish we can be, even as adults.
It’s a helpless, vulnerable, powerless child that Jesus uses as an object lesson for greatness. As always Jesus flips the equation to include those without status in the world.
For many Holy Trinity’s welcome statement is its greatness. As we continue to plan for a capital campaign, hospitality is a guiding principle. Providing space for children to learn and grow in faith. Enabling persons with mobility challenges to access our second floor. Being sensitive to persons with various health challenges so they can attend a service, wedding, or funeral in an air-conditioned sanctuary. We always come back to our mission of hospitality. As we will soon sing, “for everyone born, a place at the table.”
Clearly, greatness is found in humility. Whether for countries or individuals, we can make a list of both failures and successes. I read of a new history of the United States called These Truths, released this past week. In the book, the brilliance of our country’s “bold experiment” is held in tandem with the displacement of Native Americans and the tragic legacy of slavery. The stories of great, well-known figures are balanced with the experience of previously marginalized people: women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and sexual minorities.
Someone once said that if you want to learn about humanity’s failures begin on the first page of the newspaper. If you want to know about humanity’s successes, read from the last page. In other words, the obituaries.
Writer David Brooks makes a similar distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Our culture and our schooling emphasize resume values. They are what drive economic success and media fame—the usual definition of greatness, right? The eulogy virtues are the ones talked about at your funeral. Were you kind, brave, honest, faithful? Were you capable of deep love? Did you use your talents and gifts wisely for the sake of others?
Whether the ideal spouse, or the ideal Christian, or the ideal citizen, most of us mess up. Much of the time we are motivated by self-interest. In addition to our virtues, those who know us best could make a list of our shortcomings or irritable habits—whether the way we load the dishwasher or interrupt in the middle of a sentence.
When we can’t live up to the ideals or even the path to greatness outlined by Jesus, God embraces us with the divine virtues of mercy and forgiveness. At the welcome table there is a place for everyone. And each person is great. Simply because they are God’s beloved child.