Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hero or Sidekick?

Proverbs 31:10-31 NRSV
A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
‘Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.’
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Today and for the next couple of months we will be looking at stories from the Hebrew Bible. These are the stories that Jesus grew up on, that he learned from his parents and from the rabbis. Stories that formed the way he would later teach his disciples, who in turn teach us. Today we look at the passage about the capable woman from Proverbs. It’s no Accident that Proverbs opens and closes with a woman who personifies Wisdom. First Lady Wisdom who calls out from the busiest street corner chastising those who don’t seek her and blessing those who do, reminding everyone that the beginning of wisdom is fear of God. And here, the capable woman.

This is passage we often use in funerals to memorialize a beloved wife and mother, and hardly ever at any other time. Here is the woman who serves everyone else first. She’s the first one up and the last to bed. She cares for her family and her employees. She’s good at everything! She cooks and cleans and weaves and sews and grows crops and sells goods and provides for her household and everyone loves her! Seemingly the perfect woman And she makes us feel inadequate. No way can we ever live up to this ideal.

Perfectionism may be the worst curse we can live with. Trying to live up to the ideals of our society is bad enough – you can never be too rich or too thin or too fit, apparently. But then to have the Bible lift up this woman as “capable.” It’s too much to expect of anyone. It was comforting to me to learn that in Hebrew the word translated here as capable means something like a warrior, strong and worthy. Like a cross between Zena and Gabrielle or maybe Wonder Woman. And that she isn’t really an ideal that we’re expected to live up to. She is the embodiment of all that comes before, the one who has learned all the lessons in Proverbs and puts them to use. Oh, so we just take all these lessons and do our best to live by them. Got it. We can do that. That’s the point of Proverbs, after all. It is the collected wisdom of Israel, what the children were taught as the grew up and sayings they repeated among themselves when the wisdom of the ages was required. We still do that with Proverbs, as we are supposed to.

I’ve been watching a lot of Disney lately. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still watching the news and my favorite crime shows – CSI, Law and Order, Bones. But the world just seems so rude and ugly that I’m also watching Disney to escape from some of the ugliness out there. On Disney programs Good always wins at the end and Bad is always punished. There’s usually someone who seems to have it all, wants more, and is on their way to get fame and fortune, but the one who works selflessly to take care of the less fortunate always gets the great reward at the end. It’s nice, and it’s so not the way the world really is. It’s the opposite of the reality shows that pit people against each other, expecting them to lie, cheat or whatever in order to gain the prize. There’s just something wrong with lifting up manipulation and scheming as the way to win. But it seems to be the model these days. That’s why it is a such a big deal when we see people stepping out and selflessly giving of themselves for someone else.

One Disney movie I’ve enjoyed is Sky High, the story of goings on at a high school for the children of Super-Heroes. It’s mostly about the coming of age of the son of the two greatest super heroes in the world, but it’s also a story about refusing to bow to the status quo. Layla, who has the power to make plants do pretty much whatever she wants, refuses to take part in the very public sorting out of students as Hero or Sidekick. She has super powers but won’t be part of what is essentially public humiliation for the less gifted. During the climactic showdown between good and evil she finally uses her powers in self-defense only to hear the villain whine “I thought you were a sidekick.” She proudly states “I am.” She wouldn’t use her super powers to gain status or preferential treatment, but only to help others. She stood against the system because it denigrated and oppressed one class of people. Layla is a real hero, if you ask me.

But that’s Disney. And Disney isn’t reality. Luckily, we know that real people stand against the status quo and wrong doing all the time.

It was all over the news and the internet all week that at the MTV awards singer Kanye West interrupted a young Country singer’s acceptance speech because he thought Beyonce should have gotten the award. A lot of fuss was made about his bad behavior during the week. And in the normal course of things Beyonce and the young singer Taylor would have the spent the week touring the talk shows complaining about him and all that. But that didn’t happen this time. Instead, in response to Kanye West’s bad behavior, which just echoed the kind of rude and uncaring behavior we have seen way too much of lately – Beyonce reached out with love and care, giving up HER moment of glory to a young woman who had never stood in that place before. Taylor was able to thank those who helped her get the award, and Beyonce got a hug. She acted with grace, with the kind of love Christians are supposed to show for each other. She just quietly did the right thing without saying anything about the reason for her action. She gave up her time in the spotlight even though our society might think that’s slightly nuts, and then refused to capitalize on it. Beyonce is a hero, a Christian woman who acted with wisdom and love.

On the news Thursday night I saw a story about a group of young women from Compton who had all won a particular award that would give them each a scholarship and an opportunity to go to DC to meet the President. At the last moment the organization presenting the awards learned that one of the award recipients was Hispanic, not African American, and they denied her the scholarship. Upon hearing this, her five African American classmates who also received these scholarships turned them down. Most people would have said, “Aw, that’s a bummer. We’ll get you a souvenir in DC. See you when we get back.” But these girls would not accept an award that discriminated against their friend and classmate because of her race. All six girls worked really hard to win the award and they weren’t going to leave out their friend. And this becomes even a bigger deal when you realize that most of the violence where they live is between black gangs and Hispanic gangs. Most of the violence and hatred where they live falls along racial lines. Their solidarity crosses those very same racial lines. These girls are absolutely heroes. These are Christian girls who behaved in the way they have been taught to behave in church – standing up for what is right, what is true, what is loving, regardless of what the consequences may be for them personally.

Mark 9:33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" 9:34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 9:35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

Those disciples did get themselves in trouble pretty regularly, didn’t they? To be fair to them, they only knew the way of the world. They may have learned Proverbs, but very few people actually lived them. The whole point of the Capable Woman passage is to show people what it would look like if they lived in Wisdom. So it was only normal that the disciples would fight over who was going to sit at Jesus’ right hand when he came into his kingdom, or who would be his deputy, his most valued assistant. And frankly, it’s really hard for anyone to get “the first must be last.” That’s really the point of the capable woman. Here is someone who is last in society’s eyes – a woman – being lifted up as ideal. The perfect partner, which makes us understand that her ideal mate will be her match in all things as well. Honest, upright and wise, one who is known in the city gates, a giver of justice and a leader. One who selflessly serves his community as she does. One who is lifted up because of his service to God’s people, as she is. Their various enterprises prosper, not because they are manipulative and scheming, but because they are honest and forthright in all things. Helping the needy is at the top of their list of things to do because it is the right thing to do, neither an afterthought nor a means of gaining fame among their peers. They don’t seek recognition but they receive it. These are those who will become first, because they are servants to all. Not doormats – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Jesus teaches that we are to do the opposite of what the world expects, to put ourselves in a position to help, to lead without asking for notice. The way Disney’s Layla and the music world’s Beyonce and Compton’s five young award recipients did. And the way of the capable woman from Proverbs. As Christians we are expected to stand up against the status quo, to stand with to oppressed and marginalized. As Christians we are not to be part of the system. We are not to be part of the problem. We are to bring the solution, and that solution will always come from a position of love. The solution will always come from a position of service. As Christians we don’t ask what’s in it for me. Rather we want to know what we can do for you.

In the words of the hymn “The world behind me, the cross before me.” The world is the greed, the manipulation, the scheming, the political posturing, the fears and worries, it’s all the sins that hold us back, that keep us from living up to what God desires for us. The cross is resurrection and new life, walking forward into God’s kingdom on earth, into a way of life different from any other. A life of service and love to and for all of God’s children, all of God’s creation. A life of wisdom, which begins with love of God, like that of the capable woman. A life in which we are heroes, like those we have heard about today. A life modeled on the life of Jesus Christ, who taught us everything we know about God and about living. My brothers and sisters, together let us sing out our decision to follow Jesus.

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