This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 19 Septmber, 2021. (Pentecost 17B)
Proverbs 31:10 – 31
James 3:1 – 12
Mark 9:30 – 37
Click here to view the readings in full at the Vanderbilt Common Lectionary
“A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” Proverbs 31:10
What a wonderful, if somewhat idealized, picture of the woman at the heart of the household — no wonder her lamp didn’t go out at night, and that she rose while it was still night: who would have the time and energy to do all the things that she managed to achieve! Her care for her household, and particularly for her husband earned her the admiration and respect of all around her.
I wonder whether, as you listened to this description, you had in mind a particular woman whose loving service to household and community you stand in awe of? In the largely patriarchal writings that make up our scriptures, this description of “the capable wife” stands out remarkably.
But [at the later service] we have followed that by the great song from the Iona tradition that points our attention to the “line of women extending back to Eve” which has been essential to the story of human life with God. There are well-known names like Sarah, Hannah, Mary, Anna, but also those we might not have heard of, particularly in the careful selection of passages that we read at our services: Tamar’s story where she takes drastic steps to confront her father-in-Law Judah in order to have him provide her with the protection and rights that were due her as a widow: that is picked up in the song as “fighting for women’s worth”. Shiphrah and Puah are rarely mentioned in our services, but as midwives they refused to obey the Egyptians king’s command to kill all male Hebrew babies, thus making Moses’ leadership possible.
There are these remarkable women in the story of God’s work with his creation, and they point to the countless other women in biblical times and more recently, who have worked and served to bring God’s plans to fruition. Again, perhaps you have particular women in mind as you think of these less-known or unnamed ones.
But it is interesting to focus our attention on women’s ministry and value in the context of the other readings that are set for the day. Think of the statements in the gospel like “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”, or “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” — did they raise resonances, warnings or questions when heard in the context of women’s ministry? And that says nothing of James’s warnings about the power of the tongue!
At the crux of this discourse on the power of the tongue, the author reminds us that “with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God”. For all of us, male and female, recognize that our words possess great power for good and for ill. We all know the power of a simple word of appreciation, of encouragement, of love, but also the immense power of a word of slander, name-calling, put-down, innuendo — a power that “curses those who are made in God’s image”.
The gospel reading shows the disciples hearing but not understanding the powerful words of Jesus about his coming death and resurrection, and at that same moment finding themselves talking about precedence — “which of us is the greatest?” Then Jesus takes a little child. On Thursday, John gave us some words of José Pagola, talking of Jesus’ inclusive community of disciples. He describes children in this way, “Along with women, children are the weakest and smallest members of the family, the least powerful and most in need of love. For Jesus, they must be at the centre of God’s reign”. Jesus takes one of these little ones, and points to the welcome that we give them as really a welcome to the God who sent Jesus. Now some of us might look at particular children and say, “are they really so weak and powerless?” but the picture remains valid: it is the little ones that are the signs of God’s reign, not the powerful ones.
Does that say something about the ministry of women, down the ages, and in our own day — a ministry for which we thank God.
But of course there’s more! The second letter of John at the end of the New Testament, is addressed to “the beloved lady”, but it is clear that it is not written to a particular woman, or even to a group of women, but to a congregation. Think back to our reflections so far about the life and work of women, both of the “capable wife”, and “long line of women stretching back to Eve”, and ask, “Are these applicable also to a christian congregation — could Saint Oswald’s Parkside congregation be properly addressed as “the beloved lady”? To what extent are we “little ones” that are signs of God’s reign?
Are there ways, for example, in which this congregation has “taken on powerful men”? or “stood for women’s worth”? Has it witnessed to the Risen Christ with “news that seemed suspect” Has it, with Mary and Martha, “given him room and space”? Has it, in short, been part of Jesus’ “womanly elect”?
There have been wonderful ways in which this congregation has been part of the Mission of God as the women have down the ages — and we have seen God’s ideal being worked out in the life of the people of God here. This is true both of its outward-looking activity of working for justice, peace and compassion in the wider Church and community, and also of its internal life of loving care for one another, and its welcome to many different people with their very varied needs and gifts.
But we have also been victims of “making many mistakes”. James points out that “all of us make many mistakes”, and particularly points to the danger of making mistakes, “in speaking”. A philosopher made the observation that God gave us two ears and one mouth, to remind us that we should listen much and speak little. How many congregations have been torn apart by unwise or unloving speech — or even untrue speech designed simply to damage. And Jesus’ words to his disciples ring true in the life of a congregation also, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Every act of self-seeking or self-aggrandisement is another nail in the coffin of a congregation that is teetering on the point of death.
The section that we read from James suggests that he was writing to a community where destructive talk was damaging the community to the extent that it was described as “full of deadly poison”. But the tongue can also be used to build up the community, not only in praising God, but engaging in respectful, loving and honest communication — a communication which can set things right. This is not the easy option, because destructive gossip is so much easier because it is generally passed to people who will agree with us. But this respectful, loving and honest communication is the only way in which differences can be addressed and aggrieved feelings can be soothed.
Is this the way the “capable wife”, the “long line of women” or the “beloved lady” behaved?