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September 19, 2021
When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
So let me ask you a question: “What do you love?”
But before we consider the answer you might make, let me share a memory, dating back some eighteen years or so. Alison and I had just moved to Kettering – a market town in the English county of Northamptonshire, some eighty miles north of London, where, in the spring of 2003, I was called to be rector of its historic parish church.
Kettering is probably not a place you would describe as ‘cosmopolitan’. For many Brits, it is a place through which you pass on the train, en route between London in the south and cities such as Leicester, Nottingham or Sheffield. Both the town as a whole, and its oldest parish, had not seen a great deal of significant change for a number of decades when we arrived there almost twenty years ago.
So, for instance, in the church the high altar was placed resolutely against the wall, and it was the back of the priest and not his face that the congregation would see as he presided over the services every Sunday. The liturgical language was, without fail, what over here we would call Rite One. This was a place in which God had never ever been addressed as ‘you’ rather than ‘thou’, even in liturgies aimed principally at children.
And as you may suspect, my use of male pronouns was deliberate. Back in 2003, the parish had in place a legal resolution prohibiting the appointment of a woman as rector (a development that my predecessors had regarded as the nearest thing to an abomination). You would also be correct in imagining that it was not a place, at that point, that had ever had – or ever wanted or thought it necessary to have – a discussion about the role of gay people in the life of the church, let alone in ordained ministry.
All in all, it would be fair to say that I inherited a parish that, in many ways, was quite old-fashioned. But the people were, in the main, great-hearted and offered us a very warm welcome. And the service in which the diocesan bishop installed me as rector was a moving and beautiful liturgy – and, as is customary on such occasions, a good many local dignitaries were each given half a minute or so to offer me a formal welcome.
And it was those words of welcome which came flooding back to me as I wrote this sermon, as I recalled how the mayor, and various aldermen, and a number of other civic and local leaders all offered their warmest wishes with an almost identical turn of phrase, that referred to “you… and your good lady wife”.
I’m not sure how that phrase plays in American English in Chicago in 2021, but in the context I have just described, it was a well-meaning but very old-fashioned way of referring to Alison – and it was uttered with implicit and profound expectations that she would know her place as the rector’s wife, and fulfil her duties impeccably. The question in many minds, on that spring evening nearly twenty years ago was not the one I asked just now, but it was probably the one which opened our scriptural readings this morning: “A capable wife who can find?”
For this was a context in which the expectations of the ‘Rector of Kettering’ (as my predecessors had rather grandly styled themselves) were that he would be ‘known in the city gates’, and that it would be vital for him to be supported by that most precious of beings – ‘a capable wife’.
All of which shows very clearly how place and time, how context, impact our reading of the Bible. For I am no longer in small-town England, and I now work in a national church which ordained its first woman bishop five years before the Church of England ordained its first woman priest. And I live in a city which did not blink in electing a black lesbian as its mayor. In such a context, you may find yourself drawn to agree with one of my colleagues, who – as we proof-read the bulletins in our staff meeting last Tuesday – expressed some concern about why we were being made to hear these seemingly archaic verses from the book of Proverbs.
For this passage can feel a particularly blunt reminder of the patriarchal culture in which the books of the Bible were brought to birth, and it can raise questions of genuine concern about whether such words have any relevance in the world in which we live today. Can it really be a good thing to legitimize these seemingly outdated words by reading them out loud and calling them ‘the Word of the Lord’?
Of course, we should take note that the words we heard translated as a ‘capable wife’ – the Hebrew phrase eshet Chayil – are also often rendered as ‘woman of valor’. With this in mind, perhaps we should still welcome a ‘word of the Lord’ that, in a world which is still male-dominated, serves to remind us of the vital role of leading women in our society.
Thus, for instance, a senior male Jewish judge wrote a moving tribute to the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, motivated by his recognition that she was – without doubt – a ‘woman of valor’. Closer to home, I have no doubt that in Bishop-Elect Paula Clark, whose leadership we hope and pray will be our blessing before too many more months have passed, and in our new Assisting Bishop Chilton Knudsen, we will see more examples of women of valor whose abilities and virtues bear comparison with the extraordinary woman about whom we just heard.
But actually – and with the very greatest of respect to RBJ, let alone our new episcopal colleagues – I believe the stakes go somewhat higher. Before the pandemic, Alison and I were privileged to be invited to share a shabbat meal at the home of a rabbi who works in downtown Chicago, and I was surprised to discover that the weekly liturgy that heralds the arrival of the Jewish sabbath includes the reading of these verses about the ‘capable wife’ or the ‘woman of valor’.
I asked the rabbi about this custom. To my shame, I think I was expecting a rather trite reply about the role of a Jewish wife – a sort of liturgical encapsulation of ‘your good lady wife’ for Orthodox Jews. But I was gently put in my place when he explained that this famous passage helped Jews to welcome the feminine presence of God to their home. For, as the rabbi reminded me, the attributes of the one God are both masculine and feminine, and neither should be ignored – rather, both should be welcomed into one’s home and one’s life.
Furthermore, he explained, the original Hebrew of this remarkable passage that forms the climax of the book of Proverbs is an acrostic – each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. In other words, it almost certainly functioned as something liturgical or catechetical – it was a text that all in the community were encouraged to learn, to recite, to live by – women and men alike.
Thus it is that in this early example of what is usually called Wisdom literature, as the climax of some thirty chapters of wise advice about how life should be lived, aimed – inevitably – at an audience of men, our attention is suddenly and unexpectedly drawn to a woman - a woman of such remarkable abilities and graces that we see in her nothing less than a feminine personification of the divine.
And so I ask you again, “what do you love?” But before we come to answer that question, we must address the other side of the coin, and acknowledge with some shame how we who are the church have so often failed to live up the example of the ‘woman of valor’ – how we have missed our vocation to emulate the divine in the way in which we live our lives. For that is the hard truth of which we are painfully reminded by our two readings from the New Testament this morning.
Throughout Mark’s gospel, his depiction of the disciples cannot be said to be complimentary. Their almost constant failure to grasp even the most basic essentials of Jesus’ teaching permeates the entire gospel narrative, and this morning’s passage shows the Twelve as little more than grumpy and embarrassed teenagers caught out after an utterly inappropriate argument about greatness and importance.
And as it starts, so it continues – for the community – the Christian community to whom the letter of James is written - written only a very few decades after Jesus’ earthly life – this Christian community is a very long way from exhibiting anything approaching valor. For this letter is a loud rebuke to selfishness, to greed, and to a marked lack of good works. The contrast with our first reading is pronounced:
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” demands the author we know as James. But he could just as well have said, “why do you not open your hand to the poor and needy – why can you not open your mouth with wisdom and teach kindness with your tongue?”. For if the woman of valor can do all that and more, why on earth can we who claim to follow Jesus, the ultimate personification of the divine, not do likewise?
But it was like that from the very beginning, as the gospel reminded us. Before ever the term ‘Christian’ passed anyone’s lips, the first exponents of this new faith were simply called ‘followers of the way’ – but this morning we find the disciples are despoiling ‘the way’ – edging God out by putting their individual egos in the way of Jesus’ mission. And when Jesus demands to know what has been going on, they lapse into the sullen and embarrassed silence that is a particular gift of young men.
This was not what Jesus wanted of them, and it was not what Jesus wanted for them. For Jesus wanted them and needed them to be the best versions of themselves that they possibly could be, for – strange to say - he needed them, truly, to become nothing less than what the great and the good of my former parish would have called his ‘good lady wife’. For these men in whom Jesus believed so much were to become the foundations of what you and I now call ‘the church’, and, as our well-known opening hymn reminded us, from heaven ‘he came and sought her to be his holy bride’.
Which means that for the Christian, the Church of God must, surely, be the real woman of valor – which means that those virtues and attributes from Proverbs 31 deserve to shine as the example for every single one of us, male and female, young and old, gay or straight, irrespective of any and every label, definition, or category with which we so often bind our fellow siblings in God.
And so let me ask again, “what do you love?” The question has been going round in my mind for some days – for which I unreservedly blame my dear colleague Stephen, who recently suggested that Alison and I should watch what he claimed was the best program ever about choir training – despite it having nothing at all to do with music! He was speaking, of course, about the remarkable hit series Ted Lasso, which tells the story of a US university football coach rather improbably plucked from Kansas to work with a professional London soccer team.
In one of many heart-warming scenes, Lasso is being interviewed by a cynical sports journalist from a national paper, who is clearly bewildered by the American’s way of doing things. Believing that Coach Lasso will tip his team into a major losing streak, the journalist accuses him of being irresponsible – to which the undeterrable Lasso simply asks, “What do you love?”
“I hope it’s writing,” says Lasso, “because you do it really well…. But for me,” he explains, “it’s coaching. I love coaching.
And if the journalist was bewildered already, it only gets worse, as Lasso looks him in the eye and says, “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It is about helping these young fellows to be the best versions of themselves on and off the field. And it ain’t always easy. But neither is growing up without someone believing in you.”
Jesus believed in Peter, James, John, Andrew and the rest of them, and his deep desire was that they – like every child of God – should be the best version of themselves it was possible to be. In the language of the Church we call that ‘vocation’ – and in the life of the Church, with great penitence, we realize how often we fail to live out that a holy vocation – just as we saw in those two New Testament readings.
My former parish was rather lost in time when it called me as its rector back in 2003. But in many ways they showed me what it meant to live like the ‘woman of valor’ and avoid the conflicts and disputes that so marred the community to which James wrote that letter. Within one year not only had the altar been moved away from the east wall, but they had welcomed both an openly gay male priest, and a woman priest as associate clergy. And they did so with unanimous resolutions of the vestry, and they did so in gentleness and love – and, by doing so, made me a far better version of myself and a far better priest than I deserve to me. My friends in Chicago, you owe them much, for they coached me well.
And so the answer to my question, perhaps, is that you and I should love to be coached. To be coached by God to be the best version of yourself. Because – incredibly – God believes in you and me, and God created us to live out this vocation. And if we do this right – if allow ourselves to be coached by Jesus, and by the ‘woman of valor’ – if we who are ‘church’ live as God in Jesus would have us do – then we will live into the proper understanding of nothing less than sainthood – the people ‘who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew’.
For whether doctor, queen, shepherdess, soldier, or even priest – whether living out lives in school, or lanes, or at sea, or in trains or shops, or even at tea, let alone in church – the call to emulate and live as the ‘woman of valor’ is a call for every child of the one God, and gender has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
Which means, of course, that there’s not any reason – no, not the least – why you and even I shouldn’t be one too. Amen.