Harry Cole was a dear friend of mine from my days as a pastor in Northern Virginia. Sadly we have lost track of each other over the years. Back then he was a Methodist chaplain at a nursing home, retired now, I’m sure. He came to ministry late in life. Before becoming a chaplain, he had been a high school English teacher. We met for lunch sometimes—to talk about our ministries, our understanding of scripture, that sort of thing. In the course of our conversations, we also talked about our families. Harry had three grown daughters. He was happily married. His father was deceased. His mom lived in South Florida.
Harry had many good qualities—however, and maybe I shouldn’t say however, because it wasn’t a vice, it was just the way he was-- easily excited. I am sure he was calm and pastoral in his chaplaincy role, but my--he would show up for lunch, all in a tither and red-faced because the government was going to heck, or our president or governor or someone else had done thus and so… he was forever writing letters of protest and making angry phone calls to the powers-that-be. Don Quixote in a clerical collar.
At one of our lunch meetings, Harry showed up red-faced, and agitated as was his way. The weekend before, which was Mother’s Day, he had flown to South Florida and accompanied his mom to church, a large, high-steepled church. One of the scripture readings for that Sunday was the same Old Testament reading I used for today. No surprise. It is THE Mother’s Day scripture reading du jour-- because it is one of the few Biblical texts that has anything to do with women. It is held up for women as the model for faithful living.
Flailing his arms, his voice loud and punctuated, drawing significant attention from others at the restaurant, Harry told me that the sermon following the scripture reading had been unbelievably gender-biased. It was titled, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” a line the preacher returned to frequently throughout his sermon. “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, rules the world.” According to Harry, the pastor’s take on the text was, “Women’s god-ordained mission is to raise up sons to be good Christians and leaders in the community.” At the end of his sermon, the preacher used himself as a case in point. “Hasn’t my mother done a fine job of raising me to be the leader I am today?” Yes, a fine leader and humble, too!
“It was sickening!” claimed Harry. He had written a letter to that so-and-so—a letter he thrust in my face. What else could I do? I read it.
Harry had excellent writing skills—as you might expect of a former English teacher. His letter was polite, but pointed, and passionate. He mentioned his own daughters and how he and his wife had raised them to expect to be treated equally and fairly in the world. Today they were more than handmaids to their husbands and sons! “Bravo, Harry!” (clap, clap). He mailed it and then we waited.
Harry and I met for lunch again, after he received his response. He brought the response-letter with him. It was typed, and on elegant, high-steeple stationery. An ink sketch of that high-steepled church, was in fact, top center. Below that, the head pastor’s name, Rev. Dr.blankety blank, comma, and then an alphabet soup of degrees: M.S., MA, Mdiv, DMin, etc. Along the left hand margin was a listing of the church’s many staff members.
Dear Rev. Cole, Thank you for your letter, blah, blah, blah.” Basically a form letter. If Rev. Dr. Blankety-blank had read Harry’s letter, and it was questionable whether he actually had, he obviously hadn’t understood Harry’s perspective. And so again, I sat across the table from Harry as he railed and flailed and cursed as much as a man with a clerical collar can do that, and retain something of a clerical decorum.
To Harry’s mind, Rev. Dr. Blankety-Blank had a problem. However, the problem may not have been so much with the Reverend Doctor as it was with the person who wrote Proverbs 31. It was written by a man of course, a Rabbi, to his male students. “These are the qualities you should look for in a wife. She should shoulder the work of raising children, cleaning house, looking after the servants, tending the garden, weaving and dying and sewing fabric and making clothes for herself and her household. She should bring in an income for the family, too--selling her garden produce and fabric wares at the city market, and selling and buying property with shrewdness. She should be kind and generous to others, especially the less fortunate. She wakes up before the dawn and is the last of her household to go to bed at night, and she does it all with a smile on her face and a spring to her step. Because she is so industrious, her husband can pursue HIS INTERESTS—which are, mainly, sitting at the city gates and debating with the elders.
Many people today see this Proverbs description of a marriage partner as a 6th century BC version of a Stepford Wife.
In fact, this passage is a landmine for pastors. Some years ago, I was at a lectionary group meeting in Charlottesville. A male pastor shared with us his plans for preaching on this text. Another pastor in our group, a female pastor, suggested to Albert, his name is Albert, “If you preached that, Albert, and I was sitting in your congregation, frankly, I would walk out!”
Most women will agree, I think, that this is not the text to turn to if we are looking to scripture for how we are to live out our lives.
We who are women might turn to Biblical characters to find role models for living faithfully. How about, Mother Mary? She is God-centered. She is physically strong, surviving giving birth in a barn, and she became emotionally strong—no doubt enduring ridicule for her pregnancy—as an unwed mother. She was devoted to her son: Following him along the streets of Jerusalem on his death-march to Golgotha; Standing at the base of the cross while he suffered his last tortuous breaths. “Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?” is the line from that African American spiritual— Yes, she was. The disciples deserted Jesus in his last hours. She stayed, she wept, and she suffered mightily. She was self-giving, loyal, loving.
The fact of her virgin-mother status, though. We can never BE Mary—mothers and virgins at the same time. Then, too, Mary is extremely passive—she is not so much an actor as she is acted upon—that bothers me—but maybe that’s just me.
There are other Biblical characters, faithful women looking for models can turn to though—even if they are not front and center in our Bible stories—or even have names, Hello! In fact, most women in scripture, and this is the sad truth, most women in scripture DO NOT EVEN HAVE NAMES!!! Still, we can turn to women like the Samaritan woman at the well. Remember, she concludes, way before the disciples do, that Jesus is the Messiah. She runs to her village and spreads the word. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Like her we who are faithful can share the news of Jesus and God’s love for us.
Then there is the unnamed woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears. She too recognizes that Jesus is the messiah. She gives moving physical testimony to that end. So, likewise, we give testimony to Jesus, when WE serve others—changing the dressings of a son, or daughter, mother or father, following surgery, leaning over the bathtub and bathing a dirty, squirming child, massaging the feet of a loved one who is tired or emotionally distraught.
Now up to this point, I have been addressing women—it IS Mother’s Day after all. But of course, I realize that you on this side of the room are not, and hold on to your pews for this-- you will never ever be mothers! If you have been listening patiently, maybe you are wondering: *Why all this fuss. Why do you, women-- need a particular Proverbs to tell you how to live anyway? Why do you need role models? You women are of a certain age. To put it bluntly, which you wouldn’t, I know, but I will: Isn’t your cake already baked?”
No we are not already baked. The truth is, throughout our lives we grow and evolve. WE ALL NEED role models. Men and women, young and old. Our first role models may have been our parents, our mothers and fathers, but eventually we move on and find others. We search for role models in scripture, on TV, in books, and in the movies. For you maybe, when you were younger it was--Superman? Batman?
Our role models are also our acquaintances, our friends, our teachers, and our government and church leaders. We want these people to lead exemplary lives, in part, because we need people to aspire to. These last ones, not the cartoon characters, but the flesh and blood ones--can occasionally mess up their lives, though. When they do, they can steer us off course—if we are following too closely behind; or if we discover the error of their ways, we can fall into a kind of grief. They let us down. They didn’t do that on purpose, and yet they let us down, regardless.
At this stage in my life, I have learned to be extremely selective in my models for living. Besides the obvious role model, Jesus, and some others in scripture, it’s also clergy I have met, some of whom are also friends, others I have worked with, still others I have only read about.
And here is a personal quirkiness I’ll share with you. These days I read the obituaries with regularity—When I moved to this area 10 years ago, it was not painful reading—I didn’t know that many people. Now I know quite a few. When I read about someone I know who has passed on, it’s a sadness. But obituaries also inspire me. Reading the obituaries is not the quirky part, though. A lot of people do that. Here is the quirky part. I cut out obituaries of people I aspire to be like—and I put these on my refrigerator door—as if by reading them enough, I will become more like them. I’ll let you know if it works.
Finally, I aspire to be like you—you right here in this community of faith. You are living out the word in some, sometimes quiet, but profound ways. Here in this community of faith, we are given each other to learn from, to aspire to—Men and Women, young and old. And I include you in that!
May it continue to be so, for a long time to come, in this little but inspiring congregation. Amen