God’s Grace

Scripture reading: 1 Samuel 1:1 – 1 Samuel 2:10

Our scripture reading this morning tells the story of Elkanah and his family. In the opening verses the author repeats that Elkanah was from Ephraim, an Ephraimite. Repetition in the Old Testament is a way of emphasizing something that’s important.

On top of that, for the ancient Jewish people, the name Ephraim had significance. It meant Elkanah was descended from Joseph: the young man who was sold into slavery in Egypt and ended up saving the people of Israel from famine.

It also meant Elkanah was related to Joshua – the man who led Israel in marching around Jericho “and the walls came a-tumblin’ down”. Even though Ephraim was the smallest tribe in Israel, there were some great leaders who came from this tribe.

So the writer of Samuel is using the name Ephraim to hint that the story he’s about to tell us is going to be epic. It will be a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things against all odds. It’s Frodo in Lord of the Rings. It’s Katniss in The Hunger Games. It’s Samuel in the Old Testament. Samuel, the boy servant who, in spite of the corruption of his boss, grows up to be the spiritual leader of all Israel. Samuel will anoint Saul, David, and Solomon as kings over Israel, and he will serve as high priest through Israel’s glory years.

But in our reading for today that epic is still in the future. In today’s readings Samuel hasn’t been born yet but we meet his parents: Elkanah, a man of faith, who has two wives – who can’t stand each other, and one of whom is barren.

Hannah, the barren wife, is broken-hearted because she has no children. Many of us have probably been in the position of comforting someone in Hannah’s shoes, someone who wanted to have kids very badly but couldn’t. There is no pain quite like wanting to be a parent and being unable to have children.

Peninnah, the other wife, had lots of kids, and she rubbed it in Hannah’s face every chance she got. Scripture says, “her rival used to provoke her severely” (v. 6) The old King James translation says “vex” – she ‘vexed’ her. She kept at her until Hannah was a jumble of anger and grief and sorrow. We know people can be cruel sometimes, but there’s nothing quite like a cat-fight between two women. In fact in our day and age most of the career-women I know at some point have either lost a job or quit a job because of a co-worker like Peninnah. Peninnah is a bully, pure and simple, and she is succeeding in her efforts to crush the competition.

And whenever the family went to temple Peninnah stepped up her campaign. Back in those days a family went to temple only a few times a year, and it was like a holiday. When the family sacrificed an animal to God, part of it was burned as an offering, part was given to the priest, and the rest was returned to the family so they could have a feast. Our reading says:

“…on the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her…” (I Sam 1:4-5)

So the whole family would take this long weekend at the temple and have a huge banquet… which should have been a time of celebration. But not for Hannah.

And then Elkanah comes to Hannah and says “Honey, why are you crying? Why are you sad? Why don’t you eat?”

Before we get on Elkanah’s case… these are rhetorical questions, meant to give Hannah an opportunity to speak. It may not have been the best approach, but Elkanah was trying to comfort his wife.

The real mistake Elkanah makes is not telling Peninnah to knock it off. And maybe he did. Maybe she just didn’t listen. We don’t know. But Hannah’s story speaks to our modern culture and the problems we have with bullying today. Hannah’s story assures us that the victim of bullying is not alone, and is not forgotten. God sees Hannah’s suffering, and God sees ours as well. And God will set things straight. Jesus said:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – which can also be translated ‘justice’ – “for they will be satisfied” (Matt 5:6).

God’s answer is coming, and in Hannah’s case it’s closer than she thinks.

So after the banquet Hannah gets up from the table, and still feeling emotional, she goes into the sanctuary. The head priest, Eli, is there, and Hannah stands in front of the altar and begins to pray. As she prays, she weeps. And she prays silently, with her lips moving, but making no sound. And she promises God, if only God will remember her suffering and give her a son, she would give that child back to God.

Now Eli, watching all this, thinks Hannah is drunk and scolds her. But she says ‘I’m not drunk… I’m troubled and I’m pouring out my heart to God.” And Eli answers: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant your request.”

There is something healing about having someone say “Amen” to a heartfelt prayer. That’s one of the great things about sharing our concerns every Sunday… so that the whole congregation can say ‘Amen’ to our heartfelt prayers. It’s like having someone else come alongside and help carry a heavy load.

I think that’s what Hannah felt that day… because scripture says Hannah “went back… and ate and drank with her husband, and her [face] was sad no longer.”

And not long afterwards, when Elkanah and his family went home, God answered Hannah’s prayer and she became pregnant, and had a baby boy. And she named him ‘Samuel’, which means ‘God has heard’.

If there is no other message we take away from today, take this one: when our lives are like Hannah’s, when we’re at the end of our rope, or when we’re praying through our pain… God has heard. And God is already preparing an answer.

After Samuel is born, Hannah presents him at the temple and then she prays a beautiful prayer, which is found at the beginning of I Samuel 2. Her prayer sounds a lot like the prayer Jesus’ mother Mary prayed when she was pregnant with Jesus.

  • Hannah’s prayer opens with the words: “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.”
  • Mary’s prayer opens with: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47)
  • Hannah says: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.”
  • Mary says: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51)
  • Hannah says: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.”
  • Mary says: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)
  • Hannah says: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”
  • Mary says: “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)
  • Hannah says: “There is no Holy One like the LORD… there is no Rock like our God.”

We are here in this church today to praise Hannah’s God – the God of Samuel, whose name means God hears. The God of Jesus, who name means God saves. We are here to praise the God who hears and who saves.

So let the brokenhearted come. Let the oppressed come. Let the poor and the lowly and the abused come… the injured and the grieving. God hears. God sees. And if we commit our ways to God and trust in God, God will set things right.

So let God’s people join Hannah and Mary in singing God’s praise. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/15/15


Two Widows

Scripture Readings for Sunday November 8: Ruth 3:1-5, Ruth 4:13-17, and Mark 12:38-44

Our two scripture readings for today seem to be about two totally different things. In the first we hear about a woman named Ruth who gets married and has a baby; and in the second Jesus is criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for being hypocrites. But there’s a common thread through both readings: both talk about widows. Scripture has a lot to say about widows, so I wanted to bring these two ladies front and center and let us hear what they have to say, and let us see how they live their lives as women of God.

There’s one other thing both of our readings have in common, and that is they both tell the end of a story. Both are kind of like reading the last page of a book before you’ve read the first page. So let’s back up to the beginnings of the stories.

In the first reading we meet a widow named Ruth. Actually, there are three widows in this story: Ruth herself, and her mother-in-law Naomi, and her sister-in-law Orpah. The book of Ruth opens with Naomi and her family moving from Bethlehem to the country next door, Moab, because there was a famine in Bethlehem. While they were in Moab, Naomi’s sons married Ruth and Orpah, who were both natives of Moab. After a few years Naomi’s husband died, and then Naomi’s two sons died.

Naomi felt like God had deserted her. So she tells her daughters-in-law to go home, go back to their families, because she has nothing to give them, she no way to support them. And Orpah goes home, but Ruth does not. Ruth says to her mother-in-law:

“…where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth speaks fierce loyalty but she also speaks faith. Ruth had grown up worshipping foreign gods but somewhere along the line she became a believer in the God of Israel. She got to know the one true and living God and she didn’t want to go back to her old life. The only future she’s interested in is a future with Naomi and Naomi’s God… whatever that might hold.

The rest of the book of Ruth tells how Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, and Ruth works as a laborer in the fields, and she works hard enough to feed both of them. She gave everything she had to take care of her mother-in-law, and she gained a reputation in the town for being the best daughter-in-law in the world.

Which brings us to where our reading for today picks up. Naomi is arranging for Ruth to have a new husband. And she’s doing it according to the laws of Moses as they were observed at that time, which said a widow’s nearest relative had the right to marry her and raise children on behalf of her dead husband. To make a long story short, she’s telling Ruth how to go about proposing marriage to a man named Boaz. What Naomi is suggesting is risky… approaching a man alone at night, lying down at his feet… what if someone sees her? But Ruth trusts her mother-in-law and does what she said to do, and in the end Ruth and Boaz are married – and very happily, I might add. And Ruth and Boaz became the great-grandparents of King David… the ancestors of Jesus.

When Ruth and Naomi left Moab to return to Bethlehem, they had nothing. But Ruth was determined to live a life that honored the God of Israel, and God blessed her life richly. And God blesses our lives through her even to this day. The actions those two women took 3000 years ago made possible Jesus’ birth, which makes it possible for you and me to be part of God’s family.

Moving on to the reading from Mark: the second widow we meet today, we actually know very little about. We don’t even know her name. We do know she was very poor. Jesus said the offering she gave – two small copper coins worth about a penny – was all the woman had to live on.

But again that’s the end of a story. We need to go back to the beginning, in verse 28 of Mark chapter 12. The story begins a day or two after Palm Sunday, less than a week before the crucifixion, and Jesus and the disciples are in the temple in Jerusalem where the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees are debating with Jesus and trying to trap him with questions. At one point one of the teachers of the law who is somewhat sympathetic to Jesus asks: “which of the commandments is the most important?” And Jesus answers:

“‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus adds the words “all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:40)

At this point Jesus then turns the tables and asks the Pharisees and Sadducees a question:

“How can [you] [the scribes] say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” (Mark 12:35-37)

The crowd, listening in on this, is delighted with Jesus’ question… and crowd’s reaction, followed by Jesus’ comments, hint that this might have been one of those hot-button quotations of the day – one of those proof-texts people like to hit each other over the head with – and Jesus has just put the quotation back in its proper context.

Jesus then says to the crowd and the disciples:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places 39 and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40, RSV)

Jesus is not changing the subject here. He is still in the temple, and he is still being confronted by the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and he is still commenting on the most important commandment which is to love God with everything we’ve got and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus demonstrates how far the religious establishment has gone from living out the greatest commandment. They’re not only ignoring it, they’re using their positions to put themselves above others. They’re grabbing the first seats and the first places for themselves, and they’re victimizing widows (there’s God looking out for the widows again) – they’re doing the exact opposite of God’s commandment.

And at that very moment, the perfect illustration of what Jesus is talking about walks onto the scene: a poor widow, with only two coins to her name, who without show, without anybody knowing it, puts everything she has into the temple treasury. All the rich people have been coming in and making a show of how much they’re giving… but she, quietly and in secret, puts her life in God’s hands. The Message Bible says “she gave her all”.

A cynical person might look at this and say, “well the least Jesus could have done was give her money back.” But that wouldn’t be right. She gave with her whole heart. She gave because she chose to give, because she wanted to give. And if someone had given the gift back it would have been an insult, it would have said to her that her gift meant nothing… and that would be a lie, because God will do more with a little bit given in love than with a great deal that’s given only for show.

So today we have the story of two widows – poor, unknown, without hope in the world – whose lives are still a blessing to us today because they had the courage to give what little they had into God’s hands.

In a way it’s a shame this isn’t Stewardship Sunday, except for one thing… God’s message in these readings is not about money. It’s about giving our all.

As I was thinking about what that means, to give our all, I thought about a friend of mine back in Philly. He’s from Pittsburgh originally but he moved to Philly for work and when he did he left behind here in Pittsburgh the woman he loved. And for a whole year he drove 300 miles each way, every weekend, in rain and snow and what-have-you, just to spend a few hours with her before he drove back to Philly to go back to work on Monday. He gave his all in his pursuit of her. And it cost him money, but it wasn’t about the money… it was about the relationship, about being able to spend time with her. (I’m happy to say she said ‘yes’. They’ve been married many years now and have kids and grand-kids.)

Our relationship with God needs to be like my friend’s relationship with his lady. It’s not about the money, it’s about putting our whole selves out there with God, giving it everything we’ve got. If Ruth could speak to us today I think she would say to us, “God is so faithful! I thought my life was just about over, but God made me the great-grandmother of a king.”

Now it’s our turn to follow in the footsteps of these two widows, these two great ladies of faith, and see what God will do with our lives. And when you get down to it, we actually have a lot in common with these ladies. Like them, most of us are not rich, or incredibly talented; most of us barely manage to stay ahead of the bill collectors. But if we are faithful to put who we are and what we have in God’s hands, God will create something out of our lives – like he did with theirs – that we can’t begin to imagine. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 11/8/15


Salvation and The Poor

“…the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

“For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” – Hebrews 7:23-28


“They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. – Mark 10:46-52


Today we have Part Two of a two-part sermon series on wealth and poverty and how they relate to salvation. Last week our lesson from Mark told the story of a rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus, but when Jesus challenged him to give away all he had to the poor and then come and follow, the rich young man went away sad because he owned a lot.

Jesus then commented on how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom. In fact Jesus said it’s impossible from a human standpoint, but with God all things are possible. Jesus never said the rich man had to do any great thing to be saved. The rich – just like everybody else – need to have faith in God and have a greater desire for God than for money. That was basically last week’s story.

So having looked at salvation and wealth and how they go together, this week we look at salvation and poverty.

Turning again to Mark’s gospel: at first glance the story we heard this morning appears to be about a blind man receiving his sight, and it is about that, but it’s about far more than that. It’s also a story of salvation. In verse 52 when Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “Go, your faith has made you well” the word for made you well in Greek is the same word translated saved in other places in the Bible. In other words, ‘your faith has saved you’… which has always been Jesus’ message. So this is a story of salvation as well as healing.

And it is also a story of deep, deep poverty.

As the story opens, Jesus and the disciples are traveling from Galilee in the north of Israel to Jerusalem in the south, and they’re passing through Jericho on the way. When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem he will be crucified, and he has been trying to explain this to the disciples as they travel. He’s been teaching them that in God’s kingdom the least will be the greatest and the greatest will be the least. Meanwhile the disciples have fighting among each other because two of them have asked to be Jesus’ right-hand men in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus answers the argument by saying that among unbelievers, “…their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…” (Mark 10:43-42) Jesus is teaching them that God’s kingdom doesn’t run the way kingdoms on earth are run; and that the least will be the most blessed.

So as they pass through Jericho on the road to Jerusalem the small band of disciples grows into a large group of followers. And as this crowd exits Jericho they pass a blind man who is sitting by the side of the road begging.

Back in Jesus’ day things were a bit different for the blind than they are now. They didn’t have schools for the blind, so this man was likely uneducated. There wasn’t welfare or disability or social security, and he couldn’t work because he couldn’t see, so he had no source of income except for what people were willing to give him. He was truly living on the kindness of others.

And because of all these things he lived outside the mainstream of society: no job, no wife, no kids, no home as most of us would know it. In Jesus’ day there was nothing to take care of people who were ‘differently-abled’. He was poor. And he was poor not just in the sense of having no money, but also in the sense of having very little in the way of normal, healthy human relationships. It was a very lonely life.

On top of that, he was also poor in name. In our contemporary American culture names don’t always have meanings. Our parents may have liked the sound of our names, or maybe we were named after a relative or a friend. But in other cultures names have meanings. In Native American culture, for example, names are given based on something a person does or dreams about. The movie Dances with Wolves is an example. Kevin Costner’s character is seen by his neighbors dancing in the sunset with a wolf he befriended, and they name him ‘Dances With Wolves’.

In Jesus’ day names had meaning too. The name ‘Jesus’ for example is a shortened form of ‘Joshua’ which means ‘God saves’. And we know the name ‘Emmanuel’ means ‘God with us’.

In this story, the name ‘Bartimaeus’ means, literally, ‘Son of Timaeus’… the word ‘Bar’ means ‘son’. It’s the same word as in the phrase ‘Bar Mitzvah’: a mitzvah for a son (as opposed to a Bat Mitzvah which is a mitzvah for a daughter.) This man is so poor he doesn’t even have a name of his own. He’s only known as his father’s child: ‘Bar-Timaeus’.

Which gives us a whole new depth of meaning to what Bartimaeus calls Jesus: ‘Son of David’ or ‘Bar-David’. Bartimaeus recognizes the significance of who Jesus’ Father is. Jesus is the son of the King. In other words, he’s calling Jesus ‘Messiah’. This blind man sees Jesus far more clearly without sight than the crowd does or even the disciples do with sight.

So as the crowd is passing, Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd – made up mostly of Jesus’ followers – tells him to hush.

But Bartimaeus cries out even louder – “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”

Bartimaeus has nothing to offer, and he knows it. The crowd is telling him to shut up; he has nowhere to turn, he has no resources of his own. All he can do is cry to Jesus for mercy.

It’s painful to be in a place like that. From the point of view of the crowd it’s embarrassing, though Bartimaeus quite honestly is beyond the point of being embarrassed. He has only one hope, and that hope is Jesus.

Back about a thousand years ago St. Francis of Assisi described the place where Bartimaeus finds himself as “the riches of poverty”. At the point of no hope, at the point where Jesus is our only hope, all of a sudden the important things in life become clear, and our need for God is clearly seen. And in turning to Jesus for mercy the person who is at the end of his rope suddenly finds himself face to face with the King of Kings. This is ‘the riches of poverty.’

In that moment, Jesus stops – and the crowd stops. And Jesus says, “call him” – and the attitude of the crowd immediately changes. The words translated in English as “get up, he’s calling you” are a bit too mild. The Greek suggests the crowd is now cheering him on with smiles and words of encouragement: “Come on! He’s calling you!”

And then Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

There are so many things Bartimaeus could have asked for… but there’s only one thing he wants: “I want to see again,” he says. And Jesus answers, “Your faith has made it so.” And in a flash, the blind man sees. The poorest of the poor becomes the richest of the rich. The one who belonged nowhere now has a place. The one who was shunned by the crowd is now welcomed. The one who had nobody now belongs to God and to God’s people.

Bartimaeus was not the only blind man in Israel in Jesus’ day. He was one of a few blind men Jesus healed. Not every blind person in Israel back then was healed. It took faith, it took trust, it took risk. Ironically it took a blind man to see who Jesus really was. And it took a man who knew poverty to be willing to follow Jesus, as opposed to the rich man from last week’s story – who looked like a prime recruit to be a disciple – but who went home sad, and in the end, spiritually blind.

The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus “is able for all time to save those who approach God through him.” Jesus was the Messiah Israel was watching and waiting for, but when he finally arrived it took a blind man to see who he was.

Today, in the here and now, Jesus is still the one people need. You and I need Him, people inside the church, people outside the church. Every day there are people finding themselves at the end of their ropes, at the end of their strength, and when that time comes, and it always comes, sooner or later, will we recognize Jesus as the King of Kings and cry out to him for mercy? Or will we be like the crowd, not knowing who it is that’s walking by our side? When that time comes, will we realize, like Bartimaeus did, that we are nameless until Jesus gives us a name… that we are children of earth until Jesus makes us children of heaven?

Bartimaeus joined Jesus’ followers that day.

Less than two weeks after all these events took place, Jesus was crucified. The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to Bartimaeus after that. We do know when Jesus died, the hopes of many of his followers died with him. But we also know when Jesus walked out of the grave alive three days later, some of the disciples were still staying together and praying together. We don’t know for sure but I believe Bartimaeus was still with the disciples.

I mention this because being healed by Jesus wasn’t the end of Bartimaeus’ troubles. I think too often people think when you come to Jesus everything’s supposed to be all hunky-dory, but that’s not always the case. For Bartimaeus, as it is for us, declaring his faith in Jesus was the beginning of new life – a life of faith, a life of purpose, a life of hope. Not always easy, but always worth it.

So over the course of these past two weeks, we’ve seen an example of a rich man who couldn’t give up his riches and ended up losing what faith he had; and we’ve seen an example of a poor, blind man who saw clearly and ended up with everything.

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Which of these two men do we best relate to? Whatever the answer is to these questions, bring the answers to Jesus. If we find ourselves at the end of our ropes, bring that to Jesus. And if we find it difficult to be the people of God we want to be, bring that to Jesus too. If Jesus asked us today, as he asked Bartimaeus, “what would you like me to do for you?” how would we answer? Bring that answer to Jesus too.

Let’s pray.

Lord, you know the thoughts of our hearts and you know the unspoken answers we would give to these questions. Give us the courage to leave behind the familiar – whether it be wealth or poverty – in order to follow you in faith and be a part of God’s family. We pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 10/25/15



John Lodge, bass player and one of the front men of the Moody Blues, recorded a new album this year. The album is his first solo effort since the 1970s and was released within months of his 70th birthday.

Asked about his thoughts behind the making of the album, Lodge commented “obviously you need songs. But you need a way… the right way for you to record the album.” He explained that with this work he was returning to the way the Moodies developed albums “like in the early days… as a band… all creating together…”

In the ‘early days’ the Moody Blues were famous for arranging songs not so much in a studio (with the musicians on one side of a glass wall and a producer in a control room on the other side) as around a coffee table. In fact the coffee table in the Moodies’ offices became legendary among fans, an iconic representation of how the band members worked together.

The coffee table was lost to history around the time the Moodies took a break from recording in the late 1970s, and fans have often commented that the band’s sound – and musical teamwork – was never quite the same afterward. Later works were good, yes… but they never quite felt like the same band; they felt more like collections of solo and duet efforts.

Lodge continued his recent interview by saying he wanted to “get out of a control-room situation and back into a creative mold where you can be creative with other people…”

Where it comes to the Church: Juxtapose this with comments like “Why should I bother going to church on Sunday mornings? I can worship God just as well rafting down a river and being one with nature.”

Yes – and a musician can create and record music without a band too. Many do. All it takes to make an album these days is one musician with a recording studio and a bunch of electronics. Everything else – instruments, drums, backing vocals – can be synthesized.

But something important is lost in the process: the creative gifts and talents of others. Nothing can replace what happens when band members bounce ideas off each other, play in response to each other, even get on each others’ nerves and then work to resolve differences.

Juxtapose Lodge’s comments also with people who say “what the church needs is programs that appeal to young people” (or whatever the target demographic of the day might be).

Top-down leadership leaves little room for inspiration, just as control-room recording leaves less room for musical teamwork. Where it comes to the church, the One in charge is not sitting in a glass booth. God works within hearts, and the institution needs to find ways to teach, support and inspire Holy-Spirit-directed creativity and collaboration.

So I submit for your consideration: the Body of Christ works a lot like a band. We need each other. We need to inspire each other, challenge each other, build together. And we need to learn how to be guided by God’s Spirit in working together.

The word “symphony” is a combination of two Greek words meaning to “sound together”. We can’t sound together alone.


Salvation and the Rich

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:12-16

“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

“Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age– houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions– and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” – Mark 10:17-31


I’ll be here with you for two weeks this month – today and the last Sunday of the month – and those two Sundays we have two lessons from Mark where Jesus talks about salvation and how it relates to personal economics. We also have two passages from Hebrews that remind us of what God is like, in a way that reflects onto the passages in Mark.

So this Sunday our sermon is called “Salvation and the Rich” and two weeks from today we’ll have “Salvation and the Poor”. Not that there’s any difference where it comes to salvation – salvation is salvation no matter who you are or how much you have – but Jesus comes at it from two different perspectives, and we’ll spend a week with each perspective.

Starting with our reading from Hebrews for today, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that there is no getting over on God. We may fool other people sometimes, we may even fool ourselves sometimes, but there is no getting over on God. Hebrews says, “God’s word is living and active,” able to divide ‘soul from breath, joints from marrow’. God discerns everything about us, including the thoughts of our hearts, the things we don’t say out loud but only think to ourselves.

For most people, myself included, this is not a comfortable thought. My thoughts are not always pleasant. So… let’s… divert away from that for a moment, and move on to Mark… who is talking about… money!

This isn’t exactly a comfortable topic either! Most people I know would be tempted to share their personal secrets on Jerry Springer before they would share their bank balances. And trying to figure out where we fit into Jesus’ story is awkward. Are we in the “rich” category or the “poor” category? What is Jesus saying to us, wherever we may be financially?

Like so many other things Jesus talks about, when Jesus talks about money his words indicate to us that we human beings have got things upside down and backwards.

But let’s look at the story.

As we enter into Mark’s lesson, Jesus has been living in Galilee, teaching and preaching, and he’s just about to pack up and set out to another region when a man comes running up to him, falls on his knees, and asks: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

This young man does not appear to be one of Jesus’ disciples. The words Mark uses to describe him suggest someone who has been looking for Jesus, and has finally found him, only to discover Jesus is leaving, and so he runs up and falls on his knees to get Jesus’ attention before it’s too late. Unlike the disciples who are with Jesus all the time, and can ask questions anytime, this man has one shot at asking Jesus a question. And here’s the question on his heart: ‘Good teacher, how do I get to heaven? How can I live forever?’

Imagine being in the circle of disciples and witnessing the scene. Doesn’t it strike you as odd? I mean, if you had the opportunity to talk to Jesus, and to ask him just one thing, what would you ask? I think most of us would probably ask things like: “do you really love me?” – “what is God like?” – “why is there so much evil in the world?” – “why did my mother get cancer?” –“why do the people we love have to die?” Those are the tough questions, the ones we really wrestle with. Questions that deal with relationships, with our loved ones. “How do I get to heaven”?… the answer to that one’s in the book, and it was back then too. You could look it up.

Jesus notices all this and directs the young man’s attention to relationships. Setting aside – or maybe playing into – the irony that this young man is already looking directly at the doorway to heaven. Jesus says in John 10:9, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” So Jesus himself is the answer to the young man’s question.

But Jesus doesn’t go there directly. Instead he draws him in that direction by asking “why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Which leaves the young man with the question: is Jesus God or is he not? (This young man is seeking heaven and forgetting Who lives there…)

The young man doesn’t answer Jesus’ question so Jesus steers him to the answers in the book: the Ten Commandments. He says, “’You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”

Interestingly Jesus leaves off the first four commandments, the ones that deal with relationship with God: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make idols; you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.”

And the disciples who are listening notice that, but it seems the young man doesn’t. Hearing Jesus’ words he perks up and says “I’ve done all these since I was a kid.”

So far in this story, most of us can relate to this young man. On the whole, we’re good, decent people. Most of us have never killed anyone, stolen anything, cheated on our spouses, or lied in court, and we’ve done our best to be good children to our parents and good parents to our children. We understand where this young man is coming from and many of us could probably say the same thing he did.

And Mark tells us Jesus, looking at him, loved him. And Jesus loves us too.

And then Jesus said, “one thing you lack: go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and then come and follow me.”

That’s not what this young man wants to hear. He wants to be given some great task, some great thing he can do to show his devotion to God.

And quite honestly it’s not what we want to hear either. Books upon books and sermons upon sermons have been written trying to explain away Jesus’ words, trying to explain why they don’t apply to us today, or why Jesus meant it figuratively, or why there’s nothing wrong with having money.

But something down deep inside tells us these arguments miss the mark somehow.

So let’s look at this from a slightly different angle. Instead of reading Jesus’ words like a commandment, try reading them like an invitation.

Here’s what I mean: speaking for a moment as a musician – most of you know I trained as a musician in my undergraduate days – imagine for a moment that back when I was a student I ran into the greatest musician of our time. I’ll use the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Manfred Honeck, as an example because he’s one of my favorites. Let’s say I ran into Maestro Honeck and asked him “what do I have to do to become a great musician?” And imagine that he answered me and said, “go, sell all you have, and come with me.” He wouldn’t have to ask me twice! I would leave job, and home, and family… everything… to go study with a musician of his caliber. Because that’s what it takes to become a great musician. You have to study with the maestro.

And that’s what it takes to inherit eternal life: studying with the maestro, with the Master. That’s what the word ‘disciple’ means. Jesus is inviting this young man, who he loves, and who he sees great potential in… inviting him on the adventure of a lifetime. Every wish granted, every desire fulfilled… but the adventure costs everything he’s got, and Jesus has to be honest about that.

And for this young man the cost is too high. His face falls, and he goes away grieving (that’s the translation… not just ‘sad’ but ‘grieving’)… because he had great possessions. He can’t face the cost.

And Jesus looks around at his disciples and he says, “how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven!”

And the disciples, listening in on the conversation, are astonished, almost to the point of unbelieving, so Jesus says it again: “How difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

(BTW Jesus does mean ‘camel’ and ‘needle’ here … I’ve heard preachers try to explain this away by saying there’s a gate in Jerusalem called the ‘Needle Gate’ that camels have a tough time getting through. Nonsense. Jesus means a camel and a needle.)

At which point the jaws of the disciples hit the floor. They’ve been taught since childhood that wealth is a sign of God’s favor, a sign that a person is living God’s way. God says to the people of Israel in the Old Testament:

“If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. […] I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you. You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new.” – Leviticus 26:3-10, edited

So if God says that a comfortable life is a blessing from God, and Jesus says it’s nearly impossible for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of heaven, it make sense that the disciples would ask, “who then can be saved?!”

It’s interesting that Jesus does not answer, “you must become poor”. What Jesus does say is “with [human beings] it is not possible, but with God all things are possible.”

So there is no heavenly cutoff point like there is for federal assistance. There is no celestial poverty line. There is no ‘you earn too much’ stipulation in God’s covenant.

Each of us is called to follow Jesus, and to do whatever it costs to do that. For some of us it might mean selling all we have and giving to the poor. For others it might mean learning how to better manage what we have so we can waste less and give more. For some of us it might mean giving up one lifestyle and taking on another, like marrying someone with children and taking on parenthood for example. For others it might mean having the grace to stand by our elderly parents when they’re in hospice. It might mean saying ‘no’ to overtime at work so we can ‘yes’ to our family. It might mean trying something new and letting go of the old… or it might mean letting go of the new and investing in restoring the old. Whatever Jesus calls us to do, however Jesus calls us to follow, doing that is what we are called to do, without counting the cost. And it will cost. Our salvation rests on our willingness to follow Jesus and do what he asks, no matter the cost.

And I’ll leave it here for today. Two weeks from now we’ll look at salvation from the opposite angle, from the point of view of poverty.

But for today let’s stay focused on the trap of wealth, and our need to avoid being controlled by money. Money, in and of itself, is nothing more than a tool. It can be used for good or for evil.

But with wealth comes a feeling of self-sufficiency: “I can take care of myself.” Which very quickly turns into “I could use just a little bit more.” And throughout history – in the Old Testament, and New Testament, and down through the centuries – wars have been fought and civilizations have fallen because people were convinced they needed ‘just a little bit more’. They took their eyes off God, and the minute they did, they stopped trusting that God would provide everything they need, and they went after each other instead.

This is what Jesus is pointing to when he says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)”

Being a disciple of Jesus will cost everything we’ve got. But in letting go of what we can’t keep anyway, we gain what we cannot lose. As it says in our reading from Hebrews:

“…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Jesus invites each one of us, as he invited that rich young man, to risk everything and join him on the adventure of a lifetime.

What will our answer be?


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 10/11/15



“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

“Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

“Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.” – Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 and 9:20-22


This past week our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which is the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar. It’s a time of repentance and celebration of God’s forgiveness.

So it’s kind of a strange time of year to be talking about Purim, because Purim takes place in early spring. But our reading for today is from the book of Esther, and the book of Esther tells the story of how the holiday of Purim got started, so we’ll be looking at Purim today, even though it’s not quite the right time of year.

The name Purim comes from casting lots – which happens in the story, and is a form of gambling sort of like tossing dice. A “lot” in Hebrew is called pur and if you have more than one lot it’s called purim. So the name of the holiday recalls a time when the fate of the Jewish people hung on a roll of the dice.

But before we look at the story of Esther let me backtrack a little. Last week the Old Testament lesson was Proverbs 31. I know most of us here in the Partnership preach on the New Testament most of the time so you probably didn’t get a sermon on Proverbs 31 last week… but it relates to this week’s reading so bear with me and I’ll do a quick review.

Proverbs 31 is that famous chapter at the end of the book of Proverbs that talks about the “good wife” or the “worthy wife”. It describes a woman who gets up before dawn, makes clothing, buys food for her household, gives the servants work to do, buys a vineyard and plants it, and makes goods and sells them in the marketplace. Proverbs 31 often is preached like it’s a to-do list for Christian women… but in fact it was written by the Queen Mother to her son, the King of Israel, as dating advice. In other words, she’s saying ‘here’s what to look for in a queen’. Most women – then and now – don’t have the time or the financial resources to do everything the woman in Proverbs 31 does.

What Proverbs 31 does offer us is a concept of what the Hebrews called the eshet chayil – the woman of valor (and of course the corresponding esh chayil, the man of valor). Men and women of valor are people who seek God’s wisdom and live by it. Two of the greatest examples in the Old Testament are Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a foreigner who gave up everything she had to support her mother-in-law after they both lost their husbands – she was called an eshet chayil by Boaz for the loving care she showed her mother-in-law. And Boaz, an esh chayil, rather than taking advantage of Ruth in her poverty, marries her, and together they become the great-grandparents of King David. Boaz and Ruth are two average, everyday people – a farmer and a housewife – who seek to live life God’s way, in wisdom and honor, and so Scripture calls them ‘man of valor’ and ‘woman of valor’.

Esther is another example of an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. She is orphaned as a child and is raised by her uncle, whose name is Mordecai. The two of them live, not in Israel, but in Babylon. Four generations before Esther was born, Israel was conquered and the people were carried off as captives to Babylon. Two generations before Esther was born, one of the kings of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem, but many chose not to go back. Jerusalem lay in ruins; life there was hard; and they had settled in to their new country and started new lives so they chose to stay.

And so the story of Esther begins in the winter capital of Babylon, the walled city of Susa, where King Xerxes of Babylon is holding a banquet.

King Xerxes was one of the most powerful rulers the world has ever known. We Westerners tend to look back to the Roman Empire, forgetting there was once an empire even greater than that. Xerxes ruled almost half the population of the planet at that time in history. His empire stretched from modern-day India in the east, to Egypt in the west (he was Pharoah of Egypt as well as Emperor of Babylon), and from Rumania and Greece in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south.

To say that King Xerxes was rich and powerful would like saying Pittsburghers think black and gold in an okay color combination. In fact, somewhere in Xerxes’ kingdom – nobody knows exactly where – were the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Xerxes controlled unimaginable wealth. And just to remind people of this, as if they needed reminding, Xerxes held a banquet for his officials and military officers, that lasted for 180 days. They partied for half a year without stopping! And when it was all over, he held another banquet! This one was a only week long but the entire city was invited. The party went on, and the wine flowed…

One of the ancient historians wrote about the Persian empire:

“the Persians drank wine in large quantities and used it even for counsel, deliberating on important affairs when drunk, and deciding the next day, when sober, whether to act on the decision or set it aside.”

What a way to run a country!

But this is pretty much what happens in the book of Esther. At the end of the seven-day banquet, when the king and his friends were drunk, King Xerxes calls the queen to come join them so all his buddies can see how beautiful she is. The queen, who was holding a banquet of her own for all the women, refused to come. So the men started a drunken debate about what should be done to a queen who refuses to come when she’s called.

Long story short, they decided not to kill her for treason but rather to take away her crown and exile her from the king’s presence. She can never see the king again. And what’s more, the king orders all his friends to go out into his great empire and gather up the most beautiful virgins they can find and present them to the king so he can choose a new queen.

This sounds good to all the men, so they go out and start collecting up beautiful women and bringing them to the palace. And Esther, being a very beautiful young woman, is one of the hundreds of women rounded up and brought to the palace. All these women go through a year of living in the palace and being bathed in oils and perfumes before they are presented to the king. And one by one they go and spend a night with the king, and afterwards they’re sent to another part of the palace where they live with the concubines.

When Esther’s turn comes, the king falls in love, and decides to make her his queen.

While all this has been going on, Esther’s uncle Mordecai has been worried about her and has been sitting outside the palace every day talking to the servants to get news about his niece. While he’s doing this he happens to overhear a couple of servants plotting to kill the king. He immediately tells Esther, Esther tells the king giving credit to Mordecai, the king’s life is saved.

Some time later the king appoints an evil man named Haman to be what’s essentially the prime minister of the country. Haman can’t stand Mordecai, because Mordecai (out of all the people in Xerxes’ kingdom) is the only person who refuses to kneel to Haman. Haman hates Mordecai so much that it’s not enough for him to make plans to kill Mordecai. He decides he’s going to wipe out all of Mordecai’s people… all the Jews in the whole Persian Empire.

(Historical side note: Nazi Germany is not the first country in history to attempt to wipe out the Jewish people. What I find interesting is Hitler hated the book of Esther and tried to have it banned. He did not allow it to be read anywhere where the Nazis were in power. I wonder if he saw himself in the character of Haman…? But back to the story…)

So Haman goes to the king and says “these people the Jews don’t obey your laws, they insist on following their own laws and their own God, they’re a trouble to the kingdom, they should be wiped out”. The king gives Haman his signet ring and says “do whatever seems good to you.” So Haman sets a date when all Babylonians are to take up arms and kill the Jews, and he sets the date by casting the purim.

Mordecai hears about this, and tells Queen Esther, and tells her to talk to the king on behalf of her people. He says to her, “who knows but that you have come to the throne for such a time as this?”

There’s just one problem: by Persian law, nobody is allowed into the king’s presence except by the king’s command. To come to the king without being called is punishable by death… unless the king holds out the scepter of mercy. So Esther sends word to Mordecai: tell the people to fast and pray for me for three days and then I will go to the king, and whatever happens, happens.

Turns out the king is very fond of Esther, so he holds out the scepter, and asks her what she wants, and she says, “please come, you and Haman, to a banquet I have prepared.” (What a great move! – she knows what he likes.) The next night, over dinner, the king asks her again, “Esther, what can I do for you?”, she says “the two of you – please come to another banquet tomorrow and then I will tell you”. Then at the second banquet, the king asks a third time, “Esther, what can I do for you? Up to half my kingdom, it’s yours.” – and the rest of the story we heard in today’s reading. Esther reveals that she is Jewish (the king didn’t know that) and that Haman’s plot would kill her as well as her people, and she begs the king for all of their lives. Haman is hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai, the people of God are saved, and Purim becomes a holiday that is still celebrated today.

It’s a fascinating story, but it makes you wonder why it’s included in the Bible. I mean, God is never mentioned, or the Holy Spirit, or faith-hope-and-love, or holiness… where is God in all this?

Two answers I would give to that question:

  1. The story can be read as an allegory:
    1. Haman is like Satan: evil personified. His plans are to wipe out God’s people by deceit and deception. Why? Because, like Mordecai, God’s people refuse to kneel to anyone but the true king.
    2. Some of the things Esther does foreshadow things Jesus will do: she leaves a loving home to enter into the lives of fallen people; Jesus leaves heaven to enter into our world. Esther opens her heart to Gentiles; Jesus opens God’s kingdom to Gentiles. Esther risks her life to save her people; Jesus gives his life to save his people. Esther suffers in silence for three days and three nights while Haman does his evil work; Jesus is in the grave three days and three nights while Satan does his evil work. And in the end Haman is defeated and God’s people are saved by Esther’s courageous actions; and in the end all who believe are saved by Jesus’ courage and sacrifice on the cross.
      (I’m not saying that Esther is a messiah, only that her actions parallel some of Jesus’ actions. Parallels like this happen frequently in the Old Testament and should be noted when they do.)
  2. The other way we can understand God in this story is that God is present, unseen, working behind the scenes to bring about salvation for God’s people. God puts the right people in the right places at the right time. God’s will and God’s plans will not be thwarted, not even by the richest man in the world, or the most evil man in the world.

So what does this story of ancient Babylon have to say to us in the 21st century?

First off, looking at Babylon – is our world really all that different? Do we not live in a culture that obsesses about the body, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, how can we stop eating carbs? Do we not live in a culture that neglects spiritual needs… a world of gossip and intrigue, where false accusations lead to the arrest of the innocent? Is our time really all that different?

Secondly, one Jewish writer said of the story of Esther:

“The hedonism of the prevailing Persian culture was part of the air [the Jewish people] breathed. It dulled our senses…”

We also live in a hedonistic culture, and it dulls our senses. We need to let God wake us up… to open our eyes to perceive and our ears to hear what God would say to us.

Third, Esther and Mordecai were people of valor. They risked their lives to take a stand for what was right. If we ever find ourselves doubting that one or two ordinary, everyday people can make a difference, this story reminds us that every person matters.

Above all, the story of Esther reminds us that God is in control. God can even work through a bunch of partying royals to elevate a woman of God to the throne and bring about salvation for God’s people. No matter what happens in the world, God will save God’s people.

Whenever we see trouble in the world, we need to pray and then act (and it is in that order… pray first then act) putting everything in the trustworthy hands of the King of Kings.

The website beingjewish.com says that “Essentially, Purim is about how G-d is hidden in everything. G-d performs miracles for us, all behind the scenes.” This is the same God we serve and worship and love today. Let us be God’s people – let us be women and men of valor. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/27/15


The Proverbs 31 Woman

“A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, 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. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. 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. She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.” – Proverbs 31:10-31


Proverbs 31 is probably one of the most controversial Bible passages in contemporary American Christianity. Books upon books have been written about it, seminars have been taught about it, Bible study groups have focused on it.

Over the past 100 years or so, as women have gained the right to vote and to work outside the home, churches have looked to Proverbs 31 to reflect on these events. Generally speaking – and this is painting with a broad brush – but generally speaking, the arguments have gone something like this:

Conservative churches focus on the fact that the woman in Proverbs 31 does everything she does at home – and they use this to defend a sort of ‘separate but equal’ kind of thinking: while both men and women have equal gifts, women are meant to exercise those gifts within the home, while men exercise their gifts outside the home.

Liberal churches, on the other hand, point out that the woman in Proverbs 31 runs a business, and buys and sells real estate… she’s a professional woman, she’s ahead of her time, and she’s a clear indication that God supports a woman’s right to have a career and do what she chooses to do with her life.

Meanwhile the average woman in the pew often gets caught between the two viewpoints, and she also gets caught between the hope of becoming more like the Proverbs 31 woman and the frustration of falling short of the ideal.

As I glanced over websites and chat rooms dedicated to the teaching of Proverbs 31, I read comments from women like these:

  • “You mean I’m not the only one that isn’t the perfect Proverbs 31 wife?” (in response to a book called My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife by Sara Horn)
  • “This [Proverbs 31] woman… is… skillful in everything… she wakes up super early, has great biceps, buys property, wears a lot of purple, cares for her kids, cares for the poor, keeps her home warm at night and doesn’t eat carbs. […] Is every woman supposed to try and fit this mold? […] What if she can’t sew or cook…? What if she never even gets married?” (from Relevant Magazine)

The problem is, the Proverbs 31 Woman, as understood and taught in postmodern America, is not real. ALL of these viewpoints miss what the author of Proverbs 31 is saying.

So what is Proverbs 31 all about?

It’s a piece of Jewish wisdom literature, written about 3000 years ago, probably during the reign of King Solomon. More than that, it’s a poem. And like most poetry it’s not meant to be read as an instruction manual. The poem speaks in the voice of a queen mother speaking to her son the king, giving him the benefit of her wisdom in seeking a wife – who will be the future queen. (We can almost imagine Queen Elizabeth having a chat like this with her grandson Prince William before he got engaged.) The poem is also an acrostic – each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order – which indicates that it’s universally applicable… it covers everything from A to Z.

In the first nine verses of Proverbs 31 – which we did not hear today, and which often get skipped – the queen mother essentially tells her son to avoid strong drink and fast women, and to remember to look after the poor and disadvantaged… surprisingly contemporary advice!

Then, in verse 10 (where we began today) she says to him: search for a woman of quality: someone who can be a true partner, someone he can trust. The woman a king marries must be able to raise children, look after the welfare of the palace and those who live there, command servants and delegate work… these all reflect the realities of palace life. That’s where all these qualities listed in Proverbs 31 come from. A poor man’s wife would not have been expected to do all these things… any more than any of us can do all of them. We don’t have the servants and we don’t have the economic opportunities.

So what does Proverbs 31 have to say to people today? For an answer to that I’d like to take a look at contemporary Jewish use. Three thousand years after Proverbs 31 was written, these words are still being read every week, week in and week out, at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. This adds layer upon layer of meaning, far more than I have time to go into today. But I will back up and give this much context:

As Christians many of us have lost the practice of Sabbath. We still do Sunday morning worship, but that’s only a small part of the Sabbath. In a nutshell, the Sabbath is a 24-hour period, from sundown to sundown, during which people (and animals) rest from all work. The Sabbath was meant to be one day a week when a worker could legally and legitimately say to his or her boss, “Not right now, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

So as a Jewish family prepares for the Sabbath, as the sun goes down on Friday night, the woman of the house lights the Sabbath candles. The children are blessed, and then the man of the house either reads or sings the words of Proverbs 31 to his wife. It is a blessing, in praise of all she does for the family. It’s more like a love poem than a laundry list.

“The woman of worth”: the first words of Proverbs 31:10 are different in every English translation. In Hebrew the opening words speak of the eshet chayil, which is better translated woman of valor. An esh chayil, a man of valor, often refers to a warrior, a military man, although it can also refer to a man of exceptional character. King David, for example, is described as an esh chayil. So Proverbs 31 gives advice to the king to search for an eshet chayil, a woman of valor.

The best example scripture gives of an eshet chayil is Ruth. Ruth was widowed and had no children – which proves Proverbs 31 is not a laundry list. Being a woman of valor does not necessarily mean being married and raising kids. What’s more, Ruth was a foreigner and had been raised to believe in foreign gods. But Ruth put her trust in the God of Israel. And when her husband died, and when her mother-in-law’s husband died, Ruth adopted her mother-in-law Naomi, and said to her:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” – Ruth 1:16

Boaz, the man Ruth eventually married, heard about this – and that’s why he calls Ruth an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. Boaz, by the way, is also called an esh chayil, a man of valor, even though he’s a farmer and not a warrior.

So what would an eshet chayil look like today? One Jewish woman is quoted by author Rachel Held Evans saying:

“’eshet chayil’ — ‘woman of valor!’ — is invoked as a sort of spontaneous blessing in Jewish culture. Friends cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice… battles with cancer… brave acts of vulnerability… or difficult choices, [all of these celebrated] with a hearty ‘eshet chayil!’—woman of valor.”

So combining this Jewish understanding with a New Testament viewpoint, the eshet chayil is first and foremost a woman who is loyal to God, who seeks to do God’s will – which is the definition of wisdom. She is courageous and strong in the face of everyday challenges and adversities.

Which leaves us with the question, what exactly does Proverbs 31 tell us to do? The only ‘to-do’ item in the passage is in verse 30: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” And the same is true for a man, an esh chayil. Men and women of valor are to be praised.

All of you here know far better than I do how many acts of valor have been done in this congregation, in this church… how many acts of mercy, or acts of justice, or missions, or battles with cancer, or difficult choices, or acts of loyalty to God. Proverbs 31 challenges us to speak of these things… to acknowledge the esh chayil and the eshet chayil when we see them.

We are called to be women – and men – of valor. As Christians this means primarily seeking God’s will and God’s wisdom for our lives, both individually and as a church. And as we do so, we are called to encourage each other with the words eshet chayil, esh chayil. Women and men of valor! AMEN.


Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/20/15


~ Author’s Postscript: If you know of an example of a man or woman of valor, and would like to honor them, leave a comment describing briefly what they’ve said or done that is worthy of praise. (Use first names only please.) ~



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