Yet another text preached on for the first time in 41 years of parish ministry – this is all getting quite exciting!
Below the sermon audio is the sermon text – the latter is expanded a little in the former!
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday September 23rd 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Awesome Fear – Transformational”
Years ago after my first degree at LSE and one year before my degree and seminary training at Oxford, I worked as a Registrar of Civil Marriages in the London Borough of Islington. That was quite a year… not least because on Saturdays, in the Register Office, we married couples every fifteen minutes… five minutes in, five minutes for the ceremony and five minutes out. Happily church weddings are a little more sedate.
One morning the telephone rang and I began to take details for a proposed wedding… I asked the date of the wedding and received an answer; I asked the name, address and details of the man and received an answer. I then asked the name, address and details of the woman… there was a silence and then the man said, “Oh but I want you to find the woman for me” – clearly a clash of cultural expectations!
Proverbs 31:10 “A capable wife… who can find?” Well, I can… I have! Hello Wendy!
It is not my task this morning to justify this passage within canonical Scripture (though a little bit of me wished the lectionary compilers had been moved to choose another passage). I sympathize (as best as I can) with the woman who feels slighted, belittled, ignored by these sacred words… the woman who is divorced, the woman in an abusive relationship, the woman who through choice or circumstance is single.
And yet in a culture in which women were to be seen but never actually heard nor really valued, in a culture in which women were invisible objects rather than people of praise… even Proverbs 31 is progressive. And in a book in which men are constantly described as cheats, liars, philanderers, idlers and wastrels… the 22 verses of Proverbs 31 (matching the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet) are enlightened.
I believe that God never urges us to feel guilty for not having gifts or for not doing good due to physical incapability; so if this chapter is making anyone here this morning feel guilty… this cannot be the way in which God designs the chapter to be read, understood, received and then acted upon.
This week I received an email from a new friend and in it he wrote:
God’s voice reassures, Satan’s voice frightens you
God’s voice encourages, Satan’s voice discourages you
God’s voice convicts, Satan’s voice condemns you
Every commentator, every essayist that I have read this week… all make one salient and convincing argument… that the whole chapter (every verb) should be read in the light of one verb (v.30) – “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
It is this dynamic, it is this energy that I look for not only in my beloved partner, not only in all those with whom I have to deal (colleagues, parishioners and many more)… but also in my myself.
Proverbs 31:30-31 (Message Translation) “The woman to be admired and praised is the woman who lives in the Fear-of-GOD. Give her everything she deserves! Festoon her life with praises!”
Let me read a longish quotation “A woman who trusts in the Lord is finally free to be truly strong. She is not worrying about things over which she has no control. She trusts God to help and care for her and family in all the ways that she cannot… It is a loving God who is sovereign over her family’s future… She honors God, God is responsible for the rest.”
This is transformational… when I stop focusing on the check-list of virtues, gifts, abilities, attitudes that I want for myself and instead… go right to the Source, the divine Source… then in surrender I find abundant life.
Our second reading begins, as does the first, with a question “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The woman of Proverbs gives us the answer… “The one who fears the Lord”.
And even the Gospel contains a fundamental question asked by Jesus of his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were arguing among dominance, preeminence, hierarchy… first and last… and all this would have been sweetly redundant if only they paid attention to the woman of Proverbs… “Fear the Lord”.
This “fear/awe/wonder/praise of God” is no breath or vapor (translated as beauty in the text); this is resolute stuff, foundational matter creating a psychic change in our deepest being and a desire to surrender to our Creator God.
In this place, to quote Bill Wilson, “we will comprehend the word serenity and we know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole atti¬tude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises?” – the woman of Proverbs 31 avers “I think not”.
The woman, the man who “fears the Lord” – who strives (sometimes struggles) to put God first,
The woman, the man who “fears the Lord” – who seeks to find God’s presence in their lives,
The woman, the man who “fears the Lord” – who surrenders to God… on a daily basis
This person will be a person of Strength and Dignity and Laughter… Lord work this in me, in us by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen