Friday, September 18, 2009

As a little boy, I used to dread the inevitable question from adult visitors trying their best to make conversation with me when they would bend down condescendingly and say "and what you want to be when you grow up?"  I had the no doubt pretty accurate perception that whatever I said would be cause for amusement, but the main problem of course was that I had absolutely no idea. For one thing it wasn't all clear to me what grown-ups actually did - another thing I guess I hadn't yet learned the rule of thumb, which is of course that one should want to be the biggest, the best, the richest or the brightest at something. My deepest desires for a few years, as I recall, were to be either a fireman or a garbage collector.

For girls back in the early 1960s, the choices seemed more limited-I remember becoming aware that my sisters never could aspire to be garbage collectors or firemen-for girls in those days the options seemed to be being a nurse or a schoolteacher, and then having lots of babies. At the time of course I haven't come across today's reading from Proverbs chapter 31, but many years later a female friend pointed it out to me with the comment, "how is that for raising the bar?". This paragon of ancient near East femininity sets the bar pretty high indeed.

Just in case the women in the congregation are starting to feel singled out by the ideal Jewish wife in Proverbs chapter 31-this wonder-woman who clearly never sleeps, who combines domestic chores with running a small business to support her family while her less-than-dynamic husband sits around gossiping in the city gates-this model of circumspection who knows the value of keeping her own counsel, who is looked up to by all and sundry, and whose children wouldn't even dream of running off the rails-this woman who practices acts of charity, whose apparently boundless energy is the glue that holds not only her own family but the whole community together - just in case the women are feeling like getting a lynch party together to run this improbable do-gooder out of town, it is perhaps as well to notice that the book of Proverbs is written for men. In particular, this bit, like so many other bits of the book of Proverbs is written to advise young men full of ambition but low on experience. The ancient world's equivalent of a pinup girl for the pious young man. There are one or two things in it, however, which do stand scrutiny, particularly if we notice that the desirable young woman being described is none other than Lady Wisdom, who you might remember me talking about a few weeks ago.  Lady Wisdom, God's right-hand girl, the Muse of creation, the zest and sparkle of God's creation, and the goal and delight of human spirituality. In other words, stick your fingers in the electric light socket of God's Holy Spirit and find yourself living with verve and creative energy. If this is Lady Wisdom, then the most important thing for us to notice is that everything she does builds relationship, and encourages community. Lady Wisdom gets on with the job, she is alert to the needs of others, generous and openhanded -- though actually we also can't help noticing that she is politically well-connected and rather well-off.  Contrary to the model suggested by Jesus of Nazareth, the message from Proverbs seems to be “blessed are the rich for they can afford to be well thought of”.

Our Psalm continues to build on the theme of success. If your roots go deep enough, all the way down into the water of life, then you’ll grow straight and tall, your works will be crowned with success. If your delight is in God, then God's delight is in you. On the other hand, stop coming to church, turn your heart away from the law of God and you’ll be blown away like chaff in the wind. It appeals - I’m afraid - to a particular strain of wishful thinking that Christians have secretly harboured for the last 2000 years, and which is certainly alive and well today. There are just two problems with this line of thinking, so far as I can tell. The first problem is that it doesn't actually work-holiness motivated by self-interest doesn't translate into big bank balances, and neither is it real holiness. Experience suggests, as well, that the ungodly don't have quite as hard a time of it as the Psalmist would suggest. An even bigger problem is that this view of God, the world and everything, slides uncomfortably easily into blaming the poor and the needy for their own plight. But again, there’s a way of looking at it that is very helpful indeed – and that is to notice that the dividing line between godliness and ungodliness doesn’t lie neatly along denominational lines, neatly protecting Anglicans from hordes of drunken partygoers, for example – because the line between holiness and unholiness, or between good and evil, runs right through the middle of every one of us, right through the middle of my heart and yours.  Being human means that no matter how much we might yearn for the security of black and white moral choices, the reality we inhabit is the permanently fuzzy grey area of moral compromise.  Our faith is at times self-serving, and so Psalm 1 reminds us to check in from time to time to see whether our roots are firmly planted in the soil of scripture, whether we’re drinking deeply of God’s Holy Spirit or knocking back some other concoction of our own.

On to our reading from James, which sets up a contrast between earthly wisdom and heavenly Wisdom - between the wisdom of self-interest and the wisdom of relationship, the wisdom of gentleness and compassion. Getting closer to the mark, but of course the opposite of wisdom, as a close reading of books like the wisdom of Solomon reveals to us, is not a different sort of wisdom but simply foolishness. The pursuit of wisdom is the pursuit of God's priorities-substituting a different set of priorities for God's is no sort of wisdom in all, and James leaves us in no doubt that when we find ourselves acting out of self-interest it's a slippery slope. No doubt if you told James about the global financial crisis he’d find it hard to resist saying “I told you so”.  The difficulty for us is that the priorities we actually operate out of are so often unconscious, wisdom and foolishness, as I remarked a few weeks ago, live in the same house.

All of which brings us to the gospel reading and Jesus most uncompromising take on the relationship between wisdom and holiness. They're on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus has begun speaking openly about what lies ahead. He's using the Aramaic expression Son of Man to refer to himself, a loaded term that in the first century would probably have been understood by his Jewish disciples as a claim to be the Messiah. But in the same breath he is talking about failure, about suffering and death, and the paradox of resurrection that can only be experienced on the other side of chaos. The disciples, it seems, have started to switch off. And at the end of another long day's march Jesus turns to them and says, "well, spit it out. What's the problem?". And the answer, of course, is that they have spent the whole day arguing over who is going to be the boss.

And Jesus puts the cat amongst the pigeons. "The first", he tells them, "will be last, and the last will be first. Whoever wants to be the most important in God's kingdom must be servant of all". A somewhat unfortunate turn of phrase, as it seems to have triggered off 2000 years of backbiting and jockeying for position amongst Christians, on the basis that “I do all this for the rest of you, so clearly I must be the most important".” but Jesus has discovered a basic truth about how the universe works, the truth that the paradox of resurrection is built into the structure of the universe itself. The logic of creation and evolution, by which new possibilities can only emerge through chaos and destruction, the logic of reconciliation, by which new relational possibilities can only emerge through forgiveness, the logic of joy, by which fulfilment can only come through self limitation and self giving. Jesus, who clearly demonstrates God's priority for reversing the effects of oppression, poverty, exclusion, and anything else that limits human life, is not in the slightest bit opposed to having a good time. Jesus, it seems to me, delights in the natural world of lakes and trees, birds and wildflowers, and observes closely the human world of love, intrigue and trickery. Or else he wouldn't be such a good storyteller. He delights in the world of eating and drinking and good conversation-or else he wouldn't be accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. The way of Jesus is not the way of withdrawing from the world but the way of engaging more fully with it-and yet he assures us that the deeper we are drawn into relations of love and self giving, the more we are drawn into the paradox by which becoming who we most truly are can only come about by giving ourselves away.  Becoming most truly alive can only come about through dying to our own agenda.  Being filled with the Spirit of God, which is the Spirit that underlies the universe itself, can only come about by emptying ourselves, and finding ourselves can only come about through being lost.

It’s not a fancy, poetic way of telling us to play nicely.  It’s the plain, simple truth about the way the universe works.

So, where does that leave us?  If our own hearts are hopelessly divided, and if reality itself is an Alice in Wonderland paradox of opposites, then which way is up?  The way of Jesus is to trust that the DNA of our own muddled hearts is also the DNA of God, that as we are drawn more deeply into the mystery of our own lives, the joy and the disappointment of giving ourselves to others in love, the beauty and the heartache of life that are the two sides of the same coin, that we are also drawn into the mystery that is the heart of God.  Love without limit.  Give as though there’s no tomorrow.  Live as though your deepest desires revealed the presence of God.