Rev. Dr. Russ Daye
17th of Pentecost
September 19, 2021
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Proverbs 31:10-23 from NRSV
A capable wife who can find?
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
This section of Proverbs is a perfect passage to evoke one of the most important debates for contemporary Christians: the debate about the authority and interpretation of scripture. The passage obviously champions some laudable virtues: industry; service; trustworthiness; and generosity to the poor. But it also establishes a very fixed role for a woman, and a fixed power relationship between a husband and wife. A woman is to serve a husband, ensuring the household is well run, generating income, and doing charitable service in the community. All of this undergirds the reputation and influence of the husband so that he can take his seat among the elders – so that he can be ‘an important man.’
I’m pretty sure there a few among us who could fully embrace this teaching about gender roles. So, what do we do with it? Hold our noses and embrace the good parts? Reject it out of hand? If scripture is supposed to be inspired by God, can we do that? Well, we need an interpretive toolbox when we come to scripture, and I would like to offer one tool today. It has a German name: Sitz im Leben, which can be translated as ‘situation in life.’ Every scriptural passage was written by someone who was planted in a particular life situation and wrote from that context. By nature, the passage will be influenced by the gender, the race, and the social station of the writer, plus the social forces and life events working upon that writer. Does that mean God’s not involved in the process? No, but it’s complicated.
Over the years I have found the work of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell very helpful here. Campbell believed that something greater than any of us pours spiritual energy into the world, and his work on mythology described how the scriptures, the stories, the art, and the rituals of religions great and small give expression – give shape and form – to that energy in a way that shapes our lives. To use Christian language: God pours Spirit into the world incessantly, and human beings give shape and expression to that Spirit in our teachings, our scriptures, our art, and our rituals – both religious and secular.
In this excerpt from Proverbs, Solomon, the purported writer, is teaching women how to use the energy God is giving them. They are to use their physical strength, and their creative strength to serve their husbands and help establish his social position. If you read this passage carefully, you can also see that Solomon is teaching women to function in a way that maintains a particular social order. Let’s return to the question of Sitz im Leben, situation in life. The writer of Proverbs; whether it actually was Solomon or not, was a man of privilege in Israel during a time when Israel was strong, had a strong king, and an emerging class of landholding men with high social station. There was a clear hierarchy: noble men on top, their wives below them, servants and poor workers further down, and foreigners, the destitute, and lepers at the bottom. The writer sat at the top of this pyramid, and so he channeled his spiritual energies into a teaching that would convince others to use their energies to maintain the order. Perhaps there was some wisdom in this. Perhaps such an order was needed during the bloody clash of empires in the ancient near east.
Jesus, however, used his spiritual energies, his teaching and his rituals for a very different purpose. I want to pause for a minute here and have us take a look at a piece of art that I believe captures much of what Jesus was trying to do as he channeled God’s energy into the world.
This amazing mural is at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton (see first image above). Walking from the east, like magi, this is what we encounter as we approach the Village. Feel your way into this painting. Compare the feelings produced by this image with the feelings produced by the Proverbs passage. Notice how differently it makes us feel about gender, about relationships, about identity, about the social order. In many ways it does the opposite of what the proverbs passage does. I think this mural does what Jesus was trying to do with his teaching, his preaching, and his artful rituals. It opens us to all the colour, all the suffering, all the possibility, all the spiritual power of life and it pours itself like solvent into our hearts, dissolving the structures of old, colonial orders.
If we turn to today’s gospel passage, we get a glimpse of how Jesus did this. Jesus overhears his disciples arguing about who is the greatest among them. Essentially, they are arguing about the position of their seats as elders at the gate. But this is the big gate, the heavenly gate. Who is going to sit next to Jesus? And these knuckleheads are having this argument after he has just explained to them that he is going to be betrayed and killed. By the way, he is going to be betrayed and killed because his teaching was doing the opposite of Solomon’s teaching. His teaching was meant to turn the social order upside down. To disrupt and dismantle power relationships, to establish power not in being served but in serving, not in position but in humility. He was pouring solvent on the status quo, dissolving colonial arrangements, and for that he was going to be killed.
And who does he place on his lap as an object lesson for this teaching? A child. Children are not invested in fixed gender roles, fixed sexual identities, fixed systems of economic and political power. They still see the angels. They breathe in all the light and colour that God can pour into this world, and they are ready to give expression to that energy in fresh new ways every day, every moment! As Jesus taught elsewhere? How does one enter the Kindom of Heaven? Like a child.
Unfortunately, friends, over the centuries the church has too often used its teachings, its art, and its rituals more like Solomon than like Jesus. Sometimes we have channeled spiritual energy into the fullness of colour, diversity, possibility and renewal. But too often we have done this (see 2nd image above).
We have moved the architecture of our faith to block much of the colour, diversity and possibility pouring into the world. We have turned the church into a colonizing institution that fixes established roles and relations and obscures possibility.
David Passmore told me a great story this week. When his grandfather was moderator he told Lois Wilson, then a theology graduate, that she shouldn’t be ordained because it would make it unclear who was in charge in her marriage! And it would intimidate the church.
So, what’s our job today? What’s our role in the church and as a church? I would argue that it’s to do this: To move the steeple out of the way. To release the spiritual power of God’s energy being poured into the world from colonizing influences and to watch how it manifests. Not only that, but also to bask in those energies as they come from places other than the church, from people other than the established, the centred, the normative, and the ‘respectable.’ Like Jesus’ disciples we will feel decentred, sometimes confused, sometimes corrected but we will be liberated, we will be gifted again with beginner’s mind (child’s mind), we’ll have a helluva lot more fun, and the church will once again be more a part of the solution than the problem.
Image Credit: Rev. Dr. Russ Daye
Mural Equilibrium: by Okuda San Miguel at Carlton and Jarvis streets