A sermon preached Sept 23, 2012 at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho.
I don’t like this woman.
There. I’ve said it. She’s that person. You know who she is.
She gets up at 5 each morning to go to Pilates class and then gets home to make her children chocolate chip waffles for breakfast before she drives them to school in her hybrid SUV that has the “my child is an honor roll student at Jericho elementary school” sticker on it.
Then, in her purple linen outfit that is always pressed, she volunteers in the classroom before she heads out to work. Her business is successful. She volunteers each week at the homeless shelter. Her house is always clean and her yard is perfectly manicured and her roses do not have fungus.
She knits blankets for kids at the children’s hospital. The kids in the neighborhood hang out at her house because her kids are cool and have all the right toys and video games. They are polite children who have their hair combed and shirts tucked in.
She cooks a balanced meal each night, which the family eats together before she heads out to her community board meetings.
I don’t like her.
Do you know why?
Because I am not her.
My linen looks wrinkled the moment I put it on. I exercise under duress and only because I know it is good for me. I would much rather sleep in.
And the bread of idleness? It is one of my favorite foods. I do try my best to provide for my family, but sometimes we eat cereal for dinner. I feel as if I barely have time to do what needs to be done, and when I’m frazzled, you can tell. She may open her mouth with wisdom, but I often open my mouth with complaints or whining.
I don’t like her because I am afraid.
Afraid I can’t measure up. Afraid I can’t be who I am supposed to be. Afraid people will find out I’m a fraud.
And so, without knowing this woman at all, I dismiss her. I keep her at arm’s length, hoping that nobody will notice how much I am not like her.
While we can laugh about doing this with a story from scripture, I have actually done it in my life. In college. The first few weeks on campus. I was in Texas, practically another country for a girl from Washington state, and all of these people in my first year class had it so together. One of them, Nancy, seemed to be everywhere I was. She sat next to me in chapel choir. We both ran for the Freshman Council of the student government. But she was the college freshman equivalent of the woman in Proverbs 31. She was beautiful, friendly, popular. Brilliant, gifted, and invited to the fraternity parties. And she kept talking to me. Didn’t she know my disdain for popular, brilliant people?
Long story short, Nancy is today, 25 years later, one of my best friends. This beautiful and gifted person, who I was so willing to dismiss in my fear, became my strength and support. During a very difficult year in college, Nancy stood by me fearlessly. She remained brilliant, beautiful and popular, but I learned those were the least of her gifts. She is kind, loyal, wise. The gift of her friendship is something for which I thank God each day.
And to think. I almost never got to know my best friend because she was prettier and smarter than I was.
The good news for those of us who are daunted by this passage from Proverbs, from this list against which we do not feel we can measure up, is that God does not call us to live by labels.
It is not an ancient singles ad from Match.com.
It is not a list of who we should be or of whom we should marry or what we should do.
God doesn’t call us to live by labels. God calls us to live by wisdom.
Because that is what is being held up as our example in this passage. Wisdom.
Even though the writer of Proverbs lists a number of her actions and achievements, and even though we discuss each other’s actions and achievements, it is the wisdom in the decisions behind her actions that is being held up as our example. To understand this passage, we need to get past the labels and look deeper.
Labels are a way of categorizing things that don’t require too much introspection. If I can label someone as a blue state, NPR listening, vegetarian soccer mom, then I can pretend I know her and not have to go through the hard work of finding out who she really is under the labels.
Under the labels I can so easily attach to the woman in Proverbs 31, all of her actions describe someone who prepares.
Who makes good choices.
Who takes calculated risks to succeed.
Who works hard.
Who married someone who appreciates her and praises her.
Who dresses her children for the snow. (I’m not sure exactly how putting your family in crimson prepares you for snow, but somehow it does.)
And this wisdom, we are reminded from our New Testament Reading in James, this wisdom comes from God. It is evidenced by our lives, but it is not ours. It is not one more way we can boast in ourselves.
The woman in Proverbs shows us wisdom in her lack of fear.
She doesn’t fear the winter.
She doesn’t fear hard work.
She does not fear spending money on a vineyard.
She doesn’t fear darkness because her lamps are lit.
She doesn’t fear her husband.
She doesn’t fear the future.
She doesn’t fear women who seem to have it all figured out.
The only fear she has is for the Lord. That is wisdom—trusting in God and not allowing fear to stop you in your tracks. “She laughs at the time to come.”
Think about fear. It has become a marketable commodity in our culture. We are surrounded by it. I’m sure you have noticed that politicians on both sides of the aisle use fear, and not wisdom, as a way to get votes. Or perhaps, it is their fear of losing our votes that guides their action.
If wisdom, and not fear, ruled our political discourse, we would engage in civil conversation and work for consensus and compromise. We would not see attack ads.
We can’t really blame our politicians, though. If attack ads didn’t work, they wouldn’t run them. If we demanded wisdom from our elected officials, we would get it.
But we don’t.
And so, instead of discussing tough questions with civility, the national discourse lately has been full of fear and labels.
Gay marriage for example. Rather than engaging in honest debate, which would be helpful and would allow us to learn from each other and understand each other better, the conversation is about “protecting marriage and families”, or “defense of marriage”. Protecting and defending of course, imply that Americans have something to fear in this.
We are afraid of people who see the world differently than we do. And it leads us to separate into camps. If you believe X, Y, and Z, you are patriotic and you love America. If you believe A, B, and C, however, you are seeking the demise of our country. There is seemingly no will in our political discourse to seek middle ground—because, of course, then you would be a “flip flopping compromiser”.
We are so good with the labels. And we spread fear and misunderstanding.
And, of course, there are plenty of big things to fear. Religious Extremists. Terrorism. Avian flu. Snakes on a Plane.
I’m not saying that any of those things can’t happen or shouldn’t be a part of national discussion. As we just marked another anniversary of September 11, as we have watched embassies burn across the world, we are reminded of the things that can go very wrong in this age. We shouldn’t put on rose-colored glasses and skip down the path, ignoring danger and trouble. We should prepare and engage in the hard work of being God’s children in these days.
But notice that the woman in Proverbs does not put her trust in the things she has done, in her preparing. Her comfort is not from the textiles she has stockpiled or the food in her pantry. Her trust, her fear, is in God. She knows her wisdom comes from God, not from her actions.
The problem with the things our culture tells us to fear is that we are then asked to put our trust in something other than God to protect us. We seek security in legislation, in fences on our borders, and in military might. You can probably guess how much wisdom I see in that course of action.
Because I do think that if we spend too much time and energy worrying about things that are largely outside of our control, we spend too little time trusting in God and living the life God calls us to lead.
One of the fallacies of the culture of fear is that we are the ones in control, when really God is the one in control. And when that fear takes action by labeling people, the entire community loses out. Our friend in Proverbs understood this.
The community matters. We are told “She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy”. And “Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.”
From the way they participate in civic life—from political involvement, to charitable giving—this woman and her husband show concern beyond the walls of their own home, concern for those with whom they interact in the community. They care for the people who work for them. And their business interests—vineyards, cloth, merchandise—are all things that benefit others as well as themselves.
Living with trust in God allows us to have that abundance of thought that makes room for the well being of people beyond our own circles. If our trust is only in ourselves, then there is no room in our concern for the other.
If our trust is in God, then we are free to provide for others, perhaps even recognizing that our generosity is God’s own provision in someone else’s life. When I think of the care and love I have received in my life from people acting in God’s name, how can I help but to also respond in care and love for others? Wisdom is generous and abundant.
As James writes:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
So we must look for that wisdom from above, which could mean, I suppose that the heavens might part and wisdom could descend as a dove. Or, more likely, that wisdom from above will appear in the people we least expect to have it. From the people we most want to label. And then, in God’s wisdom, together, we can all laugh at the days to come.