Our first reading today begins with a question: A capable wife who can find? Now if you know me, you know I am greatly tempted to make some wife jokes here but I am showing restraint today... at least for now. When the author asks the question, he is inviting us to join him in pondering this issue. It is not really a question that is asking for an answer but gets the readers thinking about a good wife.
Now in our gospel, Jesus was telling his disciples for the second time that they were going to Jerusalem and that he would die there. They didn't understand. So what are we to do when we don't understand something? Ask questions. But note what Mark wrote, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Has that ever been you? It has happened to me plenty of times. I didn't understand something but I figured everybody else did or they would ask a question. So I stayed quiet and missed out on understanding. And that's what the disciples did and we learn during the passion of Jesus that they hadn't understood what was coming at all.
I'm reminded of a couple of old TV commercials. One was for cigarettes I think; “You've come a long way baby!” highlighting the progress women in society had made in he 70's. The other went something like this, “You can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let him forget he's a man.” Now that sounds like the Proverbs 32 woman, the woman who can do anything and everything. But is that what our lesson is today? Is the writer encouraging women to be all things to all people? Or does this message help us to remember that women like Martha who was concerned with many things but forgetful of what is most important? Men and women alike are called, not to backbreaking, exhausting efforts to be the perfect wife, husband, worker, person, but like this woman, “a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” To fear the Lord; not fear as I'm afraid, but fear as in God is great, God is mighty and we live in honor of God's goodness.
I admit it can be difficult for me, a man, to comment on a long passage about women and how this “perfect” wife calls us to live. But the plight of women in Afghanistan is on my heart after our withdrawal from the country. In Christian Century I read a news highlight called “Afghan women fear return to 'dark days'.” “It was early evening, and Zahara, her mother, and three sisters were on their way home to dinner at another sister's home when they saw people running and heard gunshots on the street. 'The Taliban are here!” the people screamed.
In just a few minutes, everything changed for the 26-year-old resident of Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city. For the past five years, she has been working with local nonprofit organizations to raise awareness among women and press for gender equality. 'I am in big shock,' Zahara said, 'How can it be possible for me as a woman who has worked so hard and tried to learn and advance, to now have to hide myself or stay at home.'”
It brings to mind a new question for the Proverbs writer, “A free woman, who can find?' It is one thing to applaud this ideal woman in Proverbs 31 and quite another to realize that in our world today, thousands of years later, women are losing opportunities in the name of religion. I should say in the name of a religion that is being interpreted in a way demeaning to women who are made in God's image. The UN refugee agency says nearly 250,000 Afghans had fled their homes by the end of May...imagine how many since then. They live in fear of the Taliban reimposing their “strict and ruthless interpretation of Islam.” Eighty percent of the displaced persons are women. I am at a loss what to do about that as I imagine you all are. But we can be aware, we can ask questions about how to help, we can make contributions to organizations that help, and we can pray for them.
I titled today's message, “Questions.” We read a question about a good wife and about the disciples failure to ask questions. Questions are important as a way to learn. But also as a way to open dialogue with others. I talked last week about the power of the tongue. The opposite of a dialogue is a monologue and that seems to be the preferred way of communications these days. I'll spell out what I believe is right and you listen and trust that I am right. But a dialogue engages the other person and questions open up the way to discuss a matter rather than to preach about it. In my Sunday sermon, it is a monologue. But if you come to bible study the opportunities for dialogue open up. Questions are invited, answers seem kind of optional but we do the best we can. But that's OK. Without the opportunity for questions, our faith becomes about certainty, rigidity; it becomes less about relationship and more about who knows the most facts. We understand that faith involves mystery and it is not possible to have all the answers. There is room for questions and as I announce often at bible study, I love questions. And I love when you come up to me in coffee hour and ask questions about the sermon or the readings or even the hymns or prayers. Dialogue opens us up to learn from one another. And I'm not so concerned with facts as I am with mystery, the fear of God spoken of in the proverbs and the call for relationship—relationship between us as Christians and relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And so I ask you now, please ask questions about my sermons; don't be like those disciples. They didn't understand but they failed to ask and so they failed to react in a helpful way in the time Jesus needed them to stand by him. We are free to ask questions of God, of God's word so that we are prepared to be God's ambassadors in the world; to live out the love we've been given; to live in God's peace.
On the other hand, when you start asking questions, it can lead us to hear a truth we are uncomfortable with. We are all theologians in our own way; we have our way of thinking about God and how God acts. But when we engage others in conversation with their theology of God, it can be a bit scary. It means we are opening up to changing our doctrine. Truth can be scary and sometimes the truth comes in uncomfortable packages.
The courage to ask questions can be one way we show our commitment to the truth as Jesus has presented it in scripture and in others.
Okay, I went as long in this sermon as I could without a humorous commentary on a wife that might not be so perfect. And it was going to be a story about Julie but I decided against it. Instead, it is something that happened to Robbie and me and a stranger. We were done golfing and in the clubhouse. We heard a cellular phone on a bench ring. A man we didn't know picked it up and set it on speaker. We got to overhear the conversation:
WOMAN: "Hi Honey, it's me. Are you at the club?"
WOMAN: "I'm at the shops now and found this beautiful leather coat. It's only $2,000; is it OK if I buy it?"
MAN: "Sure, go ahead if you like it that much."
WOMAN: "I also stopped by the Lexus dealership and saw the new models. I saw one I really liked."
MAN: "How much?"
WOMAN: "$90,000." ;
MAN: "OK, but for that price, I want it with all the options."
WOMAN:"Great! Oh, and one more thing... I was just talking to Janie and found out that the house I wanted last year is back on the market. They're asking $980,000 for it."
MAN: "Well, then go ahead and make an offer of $900,000. They'll probably take it. If not, we can go the extra eighty-thousand if it's what you really want."
WOMAN: "OK. I'll see you later! I love you so much!"
MAN: "Bye! I love you, too."
The man hangs up. We are all staring at him in unbelief at how he answered all those questions. Not the way I would've as you probably all know. Anyways, he turns to the rest of us in the room and asks, "Anyone know whose phone this is?"
The writer of proverbs asked a question to get his readers thinking about how to live the faithful life. The disciples failed to ask questions because they were afraid of being embarrassed. Understand that it is OK to question things. We always want to go to solid sources for information because heaven knows there are many shall I say odd views of faith to be found. We start with this answer: Jesus is Lord and Savior. All other questions are submissive to this answer. With that you can't go too far wrong.
Our next hymn is actually an Advent hymn. But it asks a question of us: O Lord, how shall we meet you? And it comes with a prayer that God's light is revealed in us, God's light in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is calling each of us. We answer in faith but we don't leave our intellect behind. Ask questions and learn of the truth Jesus brings. God is your light and your salvation and is ready and able to answer your doubts and fears. For God is love. Amen.
Hymn: O Lord, How Shall I meet you? PH 11