Wise Up

Psalm 1

Mark 9:33-37

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

I’ve known Psalm 1 forever. I learned a sung version of it for a children’s church musical when I was in first grade:

I’ve got roots going down to the waters, I’ve got leaves growing up to the sunshine, I’m becoming what the Lord of trees has meant me to be: a strong young tree.

Yeah. I still remember it. We practiced a lot.

Anyway, now that I spend much of my time thinking about the Christian nurture and education of children, I recognize how wise this choice of song was. Strong images for little, concrete-thinking brains to latch onto. A basic message about the way God’s world works: if we stay connected to God, and connected to God’s intention for us, we will be strong, abiding, like well-watered trees. If we don’t, we will wither and blow away like dried grasses. It’s like a first grade science experiment, where you water one plant and let another dry out and see what happens.

It’s a simple message: two paths, and here are the results of each.

Of course, as we gain life experience past the first grade, and think about it, maybe this lesson becomes simplistic? Is this really true? Do people who follow God always prosper? Do people who flaunt God’s intent for the world always shrivel away into insignificance? I mean, look what comes just before Psalm 1:

The book of Job. There it is. The answer to the quandry of Psalm 1: yes, says Job, sometimes bad things do happen to good people. And there are no easy answers in Job.

Confounding. Two texts saying different things, right next to each other. Come on, Bible! Why can’t it be easy?

Even Jesus gets in on saying these confounding things. What does he tell the disciples, as they argue, like children, about who is the best disciple? “Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all.”

And then, Jesus takes a child, and makes it clear that a child is the most important of all. (Children, by the way, in that society had very little status. They were essentially property. But here is Jesus, saying that to embrace and welcome a child is to embrace and welcome Jesus himself, God incarnate.)

I’m not going to answer any of the hard questions from today’s texts. Personally, I want an answer, and so it’s hard for me not to do that today (my favorite sermons are “hard text” sermons because I love the wrestling to a resolution…) And there are so many opportunities today for wrestling. But today, no solutions. Let’s just talk about the wrestling.

As Christians, this is our book. What we believe and who we are, especially in the Protestant traditions stemming from the Reformation, is based on Word, the Word of God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and brought to us in this book. That is not a simple thing. This book is very old. It’s a collection of works. At the same time that it often makes sense to us thousands of years later, it also takes some work to live with this book.

And if a child who grows up in this congregation comes away from here with anything, I hope it is an understanding that loving, respecting, and honoring this book involves wrestling with it. Wrestling with every last confounding saying of Jesus.

Wrestling with every text that contradicts another.

Wrestling with everything that is hard for us to hear, and every text that we hear freshly and realize we totally misunderstood.

We talk about “the living Word,” and part of that life is that the Word, which was made flesh in Jesus Christ, is also embodied in this community…we are to live out this book, and stay connected to it, because that is how we become what the Lord of trees has meant us to be.

It turns out that we had many opportunities for wrestling with the text this morning. In churches that, like ours, use the Revised common lectionary, we have at least four passages to pick from every week.

In general, it works this way. One text  is a Psalm. One is a text from another book of the Hebrew Bible. Then there’s a text from the Gospels (Matthew Mark Luke and John); and finally, a text from another of the New Testament books. Sometimes there are some “alternates” (often on Sundays when one of the assigned texts is “difficult”) One of the texts that it was possible to pick as a reading today is Proverbs 31…grab your pew Bible and take a look.

It’s a really tricky text for liberal and progressive Christians, especially if we want to consider ourselves feminists.

Proverbs, one of those texts we call “Wisdom literature” has this chapter toward the end that describes “the ideal woman.”

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.

Every time I read it, it makes me feel entirely inadequate as a North American Suburban Mother. Because I do not get up before dawn; sometimes the best I can do to provide food for my kids is to throw a handful of crackers in their direction; I am horrible with real estate and the stock market; my tomato plants shriveled up and died this summer; I have no intentions of running my own small business; and I have not been doing weight training like I hear a woman my age should be doing…Proverbs 31 is a totally unachievable standard.

Except, if we think this is a standard to live up to, we haven’t taught ourselves to read it correctly. Do you remember your high school English teacher making sure you understood genre? So, for example, you can’t read a satire as if it’s serious (English majors, have we got any? You remember Jonathan Swift and his satirical essay about eating Irish babies? We can explain this to the science majors during coffee hour!)

Proverbs 31 is actually a poem, an acrostic poem in fact: so think about genre. The point of a poem is not to prescribe behaviors for people. It’s art. Altogether, it makes a point. In fact, keep reading, and you get this lovely addition to the poem where this woman is a personification of God’s Wisdom. Maybe this is not so much a great housewife as a great metaphor for the work God is doing to continually uphold the world and keep things running well! One commentator points out that the key line here is “a capable wife” (and that’s a horrible translation here. It’s better as “a woman of virtue” or even better yet, “A woman of valor,” which is an enormous compliment, don’t you think? You can call me a woman of valor anytime!

Anyway, about two years ago, two of my former youth group members, sisters, decided to get sister tattoos. (Stay with me here…) I asked them for permission to tell this story today. They were delighted.

Cassidy and Maddie wanted something that went together, and honored the faith in God that is very central to who they are. They also wanted something that characterized who each of them are. But, these two are feminists to the core, so initially I was a little surprised when they posted, on facebook, that they were getting tattoos and the texts were from Proverbs 31.

And then I read more, and my former youth pastor heart just swelled with pride. They split verse 25 between them. Cassidy has “she is clothed in strength and dignity”  and Maddie has “she laughs without fear of the future” Here’s what they wrote to me about their tattoos:

We researched it a little bit. We wanted to reclaim it. People seem to be so surprised that we grew up religious and believe in God. The verse seemed to fit parts of our personalities. I don’t take the verses as something to strive for. By no means am I perfect, but God loves me anyways. I truly believe he made me in His vision. Having this tattoo is not only a bonding experience for us, but a permanent reminder to act out God’s love in my day-to-day life.

Women of valor, indeed, those two sisters, taking the Word, studying it, playing with it, understanding it,  and quite literally applying it to themselves.

This is what I want for each of us: that we know, beyond a doubt, that this book, the Word, is for us. That we know, beyond a doubt, that Jesus Christ, the Word, is for us. That we continue to wrestle and struggle, to spend our lives working to understand, to see how these words form us and shape us, how these words are a part of us.

Downstairs, on Sundays, we are working hard with the children of the congregation (and, lest we forget, as Jesus reminds us, the most important people here) so that they will have the ability to live with this Word. And here, too, every Sunday, we continue that work ourselves.

And of course, the best part of this is: God continues that work within us. Molding, shaping, carving out space in our lives. Quite literally, writing on our hearts that we belong to Jesus Christ.

Friends, this is good news. Thanks be to God.