Clothed in Strength and Dignity

My initial reaction to our readings for Sunday was one of bemusement and amusement.

autumn dogwood leaf, with sun shining through, by Martin LaBar
autumn dogwood leaf, with sun shining through, by Martin LaBar

First, I thought the Collect to be particularly well-suited to this time of year, when, in the Northern hemisphere the summer is ending and we’re starting to see leaves change and harvest come to an end. On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, the Fall Equinox is celebrated as Mabon; this is the end of the harvest season, the last celebration before Samhain marks the beginning of winter and of the new year.  As Christians, our tradition has separated us somewhat from observing the turn of the seasons, though this is part of our Jewish heritage.  But the Collect appointed for Sunday is a beautiful observation, though it does not directly address the harvest time and the coming of winter:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

I noticed that we have Psalm 1 appointed, the opening of the great prayer book of the bible.  The Psalter is at the heart of the monastic life, prayed in each observance of the Hours (sort of a Wheel of the Day).  More than one Benedictine has observed that the very first word of the Psalter is Happy.  I generally prefer to use Joyful, when the word happy occurs in the bible, feeling that joy expresses the love we share with God more effectively than happiness does.  But still: we are called to be Happy, to be Joyful.  And this links in well with the Collect, too.  It is too easy to become unhappy when we pay too much attention to earthly things, which always pass away.  But when we’re able to fix our attention on the things of God, the things of heaven, that are eternal and real, we can find this happiness, this joy.  (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the very last word of the Psalter?  It’s Hallelujah!)

The reading from Proverbs is a lovely poem about the value of a woman who has strength, integrity, and dignity.  This poem sings the praises of such a woman, observing that anyone who has her in their life — especially her husband and children — will find her an inspiration and a blessing.   In the gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus teaches us that it is our job to be servants.  Then he picks up a child, holds the child on his lap, and says that when we welcome little children, we welcome Jesus himself, and through Jesus, all three persons of the Trinity.  And in the epistle lesson from James, James chides the early Christians for their arguments and divisions, sounding frustrated when he snaps out with Who is wise and understanding among you?

So the amusement?  When I read the passage from James, I actually started giggling.  After all, doesn’t the reading from Proverbs answer his opening question?  Who is wise and understanding? The WOMEN!  😀  Why are they arguing?  Because they’re all MEN!  😀  And in response to Jesus, who will always welcome a child into their lap?  A WOMAN!  See, all the answers are right there in front of you, you silly menfolk!  😀  Okay, so I said that was only my first impression.  It was fun and frivolous and funny, and maybe that was just what I needed this morning.

I do notice a thread that weaves through these readings, though.  Jesus tells us, as he does several times in the gospels, that we must be servants of all, and James elaborates on this.  James advises us to resist temptation, by eschewing envy, ambition, boastfulness, and lies; he advises us to draw nearer to God, by embracing peace and gentleness, by being willing to yield to others, by allowing God to fill us with mercy and purity.  This is advice for all of us, not just women, and not just men.  We may not normally think of peace or gentleness or mercy or purity as particularly manly or strong traits.  And yet, the very strength of any person lies in his or her willingness and ability to be something less than the Number One, to be in second place, to set aside one’s selfishness, to grant mercy to others.

women at work, by peevee@ds
women at work, by peevee@ds

The wife in the reading from Proverbs is a shining example of these traits.  She wakes early to begin the tasks of serving her household, to make sure everyone is fed, to make sure everyone has work to do so that nobody has to be idle.  She is merciful to the poor and the needy, and she works to make sure not only everyone in the household is suitably clothed but so that there are extra thread or cloth or garments to supplement the family’s income.  She is prepared for what may come in the future, and she does not over-indulge in idleness.  Certainly, this is a perfect woman, isn’t it?  In fact, this sounds like a perfect person — woman or man!  Nobody has ever been this perfect, except for Jesus himself.

Dearly Beloved, by drinksmachine
Dearly Beloved, by drinksmachine

We have a long and beautiful tradition of being wedded to God, beginning particularly in the poetry and prophetic books of the Old Testament.  Into the New Testament, the Church is described as the Bride and Jesus as the Bridegroom. But in this week’s Old Testament reading, the perfect person — the person who has strength and dignity [as] her clothing, who opens her mouth with wisdom, whose children rise up and call her happy while her husband praises her — this person is not the bridegroom, but the bride.  So I’m going to ask you to indulge me for a moment in something a little strange, maybe even a little scandalous.

I invite you to take a deep breath and then close your eyes.  Bring up an image of God and God’s Church, at their wedding day.  You might visualize God as any one person of the Trinity, or as all the three in their eternal dance.  Pay attention to what God is wearing for this wedding.  Smell the flowers and maybe the incense at the altar.  See the light streaming through windows: does it dance and sparkle?  does it pour through stained glass and pool in bright colors on the floor?  Or does the wedding take place in an outdoor chapel, perhaps in the mountains or on the shore of the ocean?  See the beautiful decorations, and hear the music that is playing.  Bring yourself into this place.  Will you be the Church itself, or will you be sitting in the pew to witness this union?

Now, pay attention to how you have visualized God and the Church; notice which is the bride in this wedding and which is the groom.  And if you have, in our long and beautiful tradition, imaged God as the groom and God’s Church as the bride, I ask you to switch them.  I do not mean this to say that our tradition is wrong, but just to try something out.  Be playful for a moment.

Now God is the bride, clothed with strength and dignity, filled with purity and mercy, peaceful and gentle, yielding to us even though we are God’s creation.  Maybe one day there will be children from this union, and God will welcome them on God’s lap, embracing them and playing with them, and caring for their every need.  God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is the perfect wife we heard so much about in the poetry from the book of Proverbs.  God is the wise and understanding person James describes.  God is the servant to all, who welcomes even little children, that Jesus teaches us to be.

And now the Church is dressed as a man on his wedding day.  But the Church, alas, is made up of humans and not of perfect people.  From time to time, we all indulge in things of the earth, and we all let our focus stray from the things of heaven.  Sometimes each of us is envious or boastful; we can be ambitious or deceitful; we get into arguments and conflicts with each other; and we grow to be rather fond of our earthly pleasures.  And yet, today, here in this glorious wedding, today we of the Church will pledge ourselves to God.  As the Church, we unite ourselves with this perfect bride, this perfect wife.  God promises us that God will love and honor and cherish us, will meet our needs whether we are rich or poor, will take care of us whether we are sick or well.  God makes sure we are fed, just like when God fed the Israelites in the desert, just like when Jesus offered himself as Living Bread.  God makes sure we are clothed, are sheltered.  God prepares us for the snowstorms and blizzards to come.  God vows to do us good, and never to harm us.  These promises come from God, who is far more precious than jewels, the pearl of great price.

What an amazing wedding!  How could we possibly choose a bride more capable, more trustworthy, more wise than God?  We know our own flaws, both as individuals and as the Church.  We know well that we are not worthy of this union, yet, this bride — God! — chooses us to love and care for.  And these marriage vows do not end with death; no, God vows to care for us, to love us, to be with us absolutely forever.  When our life on this world ends, we join an even deeper union with our perfect bride.  And in this union, as James tells us, we will find the harvest of righteousness.

It doesn’t matter whether you are man or woman, young or old, heterosexual or homosexual, sick or well, rich or poor.  These lessons for Sunday give us some very practical advice for living the lives God wants for us.  Let go of idleness, boastfulness, lying, jealousy, argument, ambition, hypocrisy.  Unclench your tight hands, and let the things of this world be released.  Embrace peace, mercy, gentleness, love, hospitality, trustworthiness, honesty, strength, dignity, kindness, praise, and joy.  Attend to the things of heaven, of God.  And this brings the Happy that opens the Psalter.  When we sow these things, then in time, we will harvest righteousness.

harvest time, by matze_ott
harvest time, by matze_ott

It’s September now.  The harvest is ending, and winter is coming.  The wonderful things about spring and summer are passing away for a time, but there are real and timeless things for us to attend to and embrace.  Let’s pray that Collect one more time, now that we’ve explored this week’s readings.  Let’s follow those shining threads that show us how God wants us to live, the threads that take us through our sowing of good things and into the harvest God promises us.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

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