Scripture - Mark 9:30-37; Proverbs 31:10-31
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for 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.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Proverbs 31:10-31 (read from https://www.sefaria.org/Proverbs.31.10?ven=The_Rashi_Ketuvim_by_Rabbi_Shraga_Silverstein&lang=en&with=Translations&lang2=en)
Ok, folks- how many of those characteristics could you check off the list, either for you or your spouse?
Kind of daunting, isn’t it? I mean, what a laundry list of household management, economic investments, fashion designer, late-to-bed-and-early-to-rise, not to mention her personal characteristics of generosity and wisdom. Whew. I mean - there is no way that I can compare here and if I find a person who lives up to this standard, I’m going to sit them down and ask them to teach me how to balance it all.
While this is one way to read the passage, we’re invited to look at it a different way as well. Proverbs is part of Wisdom Literature in the (along with books like Job or Psalms or Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs) and throughout the book, the author personifies wisdom as a woman. She is the force in this book of scripture that was present at creation, a partner with God in creating the order of things (read Proverbs 8 for a lovely poetic description). So in this poetic sense, perhaps the “she” that’s referred to here - the “woman of valor” mentioned in verse 10 - isn’t just an ideal individual - but a personification of something else. What if we looked at the church in this light? Certain strains of Christian tradition refer to the church as “the Bride of Christ” - with the thought being that within the relationship between God and the Church, communities are invited to embody values that work in partnership with God, mirroring God’s presence, desires for justice, readiness for action, and steadfast lovingkindness in the world.
Even if we took this as a laundry list of values for individual Christians, we’d all fall short - but if we look at it as virtues and characteristics for the Church as a whole - the body of Christ, of which we are all members - then the whole body can carry and embody these things together.
AnaYelsi, writing at enfleshed, draws these points out: “As the bride of Christ, how are we as a community of believers living out the virtues of Proverbs 31, and what does our community need to do to look more like a Helpmeet [a partner] of God?”
She starts out her reflection with some very interesting questions - for example, “how many of our churches are so noble in character that the members of our community are moved to respect and praise God at our city gates? Are they able to speak of the good we do, the harm we prevent, the portions we provide and the wisdom we speak? Are we recognized for our laughter and the strength of our communities, not just the charm of our buildings?”
These are important questions for us to ponder as we consider how we carry ourselves forward as the Chebeague Community Church.
We talk a lot about welcome and belonging and we spend a lot of time holding out our welcoming statement, and ensuring that folks know that there is a space for belonging here. These are words that I would wager many in our community are familiar with - that on the whole, people connected to our island know that we say that we want to embody that kind of welcoming culture - and we’ve put our money where our proverbial mouth is in that regard in a pretty big way.
This is where our Mark passage dovetails nicely with our reading from Proverbs, even if on the surface they seem like two very disconnected passages. In this story, the disciples are bickering - as they are wont to do - over who is the greatest. Who is the best. Who has got it going on over all the other disciples. Maybe they were ticking off some biblical qualities personified in the psalms about kingship or leadership and who exemplified them the best. Jesus, keen on what they were discussing, talks about greatness not as the best...but as service to others, taking a backseat. In some ways, much like our woman of valor’s service to her household...much like the Church’s service to God. And then Jesus takes a child, and says 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
And in this welcome - it’s not one of being nice or kind. It’s not a welcome to create a safe space of belonging or because it’s the right and polite thing to do. As Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes, Jesus challenges: “Do you want to see what God looks like? Do you want to find God’s stand-in, hidden here among you? Are you curious about the truest nature of divine greatness? Then welcome the child. Welcome the child, and you welcome God.”
This isn’t the only time that Jesus makes welcome of children or the sick or the stranger or the imprisoned or the marginalized a direct comparison to experiencing God’s presence. Welcoming the Other - in this particular case, the child - is how you welcome God.
We welcome others not because we are loving or generous - we welcome others because we want to see what God looks like...and in that encounter, God shapes us into the community we are called and invited to be.
Both our Proverbs and Mark passages list these all these values and virtues - welcoming, intentionality of service, commitment to work and wisdom, not for self-acclaimed greatness or for making us strive for some unattainable goal - but to remind us that everything we are and everything we do is in service to God’s greater work and unfolding in the world.
Our work as the church isn’t to be great - it’s to be faithful. It isn’t to build up ourselves, but to be reflections of God - and lead others into that awareness of God’s presence. It isn’t to look out for ourselves, but to look out for the most vulnerable among us. Our work isn’t about self-preservation, but to partner with God for the work of the kin-dom among us.
If we keep these things in mind - that we do this work together for the sake of God’s greater work in the world, I think we’ll find the answers to the questions that we posed earlier...that we’ll be a community of radical welcome, of humble service, and great joy - that we will be “an inclusive, diverse and caring Christian community: worshipping, praying, witnessing, reaching out to all people on the Island and beyond, daring to grow and change as God calls us.”
May it be so for us as we grow together as the Chebeague Community Church. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.