A SERMON FOR SEPTEMBER 19, 2021
By the Rev’d Heather Liddell
Let us pray: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How familiar are you with our first reading this morning? Proverbs 31?
I used to hear it - preach on it - almost exclusively at women's funerals. Mainly at the funerals of matriarchs - of women who had been mothers and aunts and grandmothers and great grandmothers. Women who lived exemplary lives and left legions of admirers and well-loved children behind.
The kind of women who are the first up and the last to bed. Women who worked and loved and lived with everything they had.
Do you know people like that? Have you known people like that?
But, even having known them, I can tell you that Proverbs 31 is an impossible list if it is a list of requirements for being a 'good wife.'
It has everything; from getting up early and going to bed late to handling business arrangements and gardening and sewing and selling the things she makes and making enough for her household and managing finances and talking up her husband's achievements and increasing his social standing and that of their family, and looking beautiful and keeping up with the fashions, and doing charitable works, and volunteering, while being hilarious and kind, and giving excellent advice that actually gets listened to... She’s a fashion designer, a politician, an influencer, an entrepreneur, a real restate investor, a manager, a mother, and a friend - all with a smile on her face.
There simply aren't enough hours in the day to do all of that all of the time.
Not without consequences.
And honestly, just reading it, I need a nap.
I remember preaching on Proverbs 31 at one of my first funerals. She was an incredible person, a friend of my Grandmothers, and it was easy to talk about how she lived her life, how she lived her faith and the quiet confidence that wafted around her life a perfume. With all of her accomplishments, it seemed like Proverbs 31 was written about her.
The funeral was huge, and her daughter had done a beautiful job. The food was delicious, the tributes were beautiful, the flowers tasteful, and she had individually wrapped some small gifts for people to take home and remember her Mom. That apple did not fall far from the tree.
We were talking over egg salad sandwiches - the daughter and I - and she said to me - I don't know how she had time for it all. She never sat down.
But, what I heard in this woman's voice wasn't awe and gratitude for her mother, for the gift of a selfless caregiver. What I heard was shame and exhaustion.
In Proverbs 31, her brothers heard a fitting tribute to their loving mother, but their sister heard censure. She heard that she would never be enough and would never be like her Mom.
It broke my heart.
And not just because she is indeed exactly like her Mom.
This capable, kind, beautiful human in front of me heard praise of her mother as criticism of her.
There are a few ways we can read Proverbs 31. Maybe it is a description of the figure of Wisdom that we encounter embodied as a 'she' earlier on in Proverbs. Perhaps it is a description of the church working together and at her best. Maybe it is an exaggerated and flattering description of someone specific. Maybe it is an inspirational compilation of the qualities of several wonderful humans. Maybe, as the text itself suggests, it is a mother's advice to a son on what kind of traits and qualities it is a good idea to look for in a partner - in a wife.
But, one thing that I feel sure it is not - is a yardstick to hold up against ourselves or each other. It isn't a description of any of us all of the time. It isn’t something we can fail to be.
This passage, all of scripture, the Christian life - it isn’t about being the greatest - it isn’t about being a boss or girlboss or impressive or important.
To be the greatest is to love God with all are and all that you have.
Now, if you are sitting there thinking, "this sermon is for the ladies. It doesn't apply to me," think again.
You don’t get to check out mentally from this sermon by merit of your gender - this is about you too - no matter who you are.
Because the key to unlocking the entire passage are these words: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but one who fears the LORD is to be praised."
The figure in Proverbs 31 - the capable wife - isn't capable because she is extra talented - extra charming - extra beautiful or even because she works extra hard.
The person described here is capable because she fears the LORD.
When we talk about fear here, we aren't talking about jump scares and horror movies, but about awe - reverence - even love.
Her motivation is the goodness of God. She can do more than she asks or imagines, not because she is special but because she trusts God. Because she is resting in God's goodness, and that frees her up to do hard things and to do them well.
Her love of God sets her up for success, BUT the success that it sets her for isn’t worldly success. It is the kind of success that can sometimes look like failure. The capable wife in proverbs 31, is successful before her first accomplishment because of her heart. Her heart is oriented towards God and that sets her up to try, and to try again. It sets her up to know that sometimes things don't work out, to know that sometimes her best efforts will not result in the best outcome but because her trust and attention are in and on the goodness of God -
She cannot fail.
Oh, she can definitely fail by the world's standards - but she's not really concerned with the world's standards.
She's concerned with bearing witness to a better world - the world Jesus brought into being by His life, death, and resurrection.
And that's not just a job for women. It is a job for every human on this planet.
You have a choice of what world you want to live into - so be like the proverbs 31 woman and live for a world where kindness and laughter and doing our best matters.
What makes her special - what makes her capable - is not the greatness of her achievements but the orientation of her heart.
So please, do not think for one second that these words are a blueprint of what we ought to look like all the time and what we ought to be doing.
Instead, they are a reminder of how much more we can do than we can think or imagine when we are focused on God.
When we are focused on God - God shows up - and all of a sudden the impossible is possible.