Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Invisible Mother

A Mother’s Request;
a preacher’s complaint
Matthew 20: 20-28

Sometimes, as someone who reads scripture with a focus for how the message will preach, I find myself caught up in my own line of questions to ask and explore within the text during someone elses' sermon. Fortunately this doesn’t happen too often. When it does, I ask whether this is actually a prompting of the Holy Spirit, and try to return my focus to the preacher. The worst experience of this phenomenon is when I become internally argumentative with the preacher.

Here is one of the ways it starts for me:

First the lesson is read within the context of worship.

Shortly thereafter, the preacher begins. I’m listening and focused on what they are saying right up to the point when the preacher refers to a fact of the text, but the reference is inaccurate. A detail is overlooked or credit for action attributed to the wrong character of the text. Sometimes, the story teller is confusing two different versions of the story. This particularly frustrates my own interpretive sensibility, because each of the writers of the Gospels have, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, seen fit to emphasize particularities to address concerns for their own community. As inheritors of the multiple versions, we are allowed to find meaning for our present context. Maybe this sounds petty or an overly sensitive reaction, but the truth for me is that when the text tells me “the mother of” said or did something, I believe that it behooves us to honor the storyteller’s rendition and at least consider what that woman said, and what motivated her to speak in public. Further, we should ask why the Holy Spirit inspired differences in the account. I want to know if this creates an important difference which speaks to the people of present age. I ask myself: “What is the good news for the people of today?”

Okay, so here I am, on my meager feminist hermeneutical soap box. Read on if you are brave of heart.
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to listen to someone preach, midweek.  

The text came from the Daily Office lectionary; Matthew 20:20-28.

There is a parallel passage found in the Gospel of Mark 10:35-45.

Mark says nothing about the mother of Zebedee’s sons coming to Jesus with a special request (neither does he say that the father came asking for special priority and power). Mark had his own set of issues he wanted to convey to the community for which he preserved the history.

MY RULE: The preacher has a responsibility to deal directly with the text assigned. Preachers need to be both student and teacher of scripture. Preaching should not be primarily about our own story. In fact some homiletics professors will advise that the sermon should NEVER be about the preacher’s life. It needs to be about the challenge and gift of God for the people of the present age. Claiming that the scripture is the Word of God assumes that preachers should expect to encounter the Holy Spirit bringing counsel to the church.  When there are differences in accounts, I am of the opinion that the best way to deal with this is a straightforward clarification of the difference between two versions.

Matthew’s account, with the “mother of Zebedee’s sons” coming to Jesus, kneeling before him and asking a favor of him brings up in my mind parents of every community, “church going” and “non-church going” who want the very best for their daughters and sons. It also brings to mind my own mother, who, even in her last days of life, still tried to figure out why in the world her daughter persisted in working without compensation for non-profits and the church instead of pushing for just compensation in relationship to the degree she held.

For just a moment I see the Holy Spirit using Matthew to speak both to and beyond his context, to raise an issue that persists to the present day.

Parents always want their children to do better than they did. We hear immigrants talk about the American Dream and hear great stories of success with great triumphs over adversity. Horatio Alger may have branded the rags to riches story as iconic of life in America, but here, in Matthew’s account, the Holy Spirit has spoken a huge caution. Jesus did not call people to be his disciples so that they would become powerful, rich and famous. Jesus called people to be reconciled with God and to demonstrate their love for their neighbors in their service to one another.

Followers of Jesus Christ, as they grow deeper into the heart of God, seem regularly to find themselves working without regard for acquisition of riches or power. Conversely, their fellow church members and neighbors with regularity gladly accept the service with little regard for the needs of the servant. Deeply faithful servants do endlessly without becoming embittered. What makes them capable of such selfless giving must be by the grace of God, acquired through spiritual practices and devotion. Some say it is love and devotion to the divine spark resident in others. It is something to strive for if one takes the words of Jesus to heart.

I have yet to hear a male preacher take this text and begin within the sermon to acknowledge that contradictory challenge for parents of the present age. Well, really, I haven’t heard a woman preach on this text so I can’t claim that a woman would have raised up this point out of the text for the present age either. But this is where I hear the Spirit leading me to “speak”.

Perhaps, therein lies the ultimate challenge for the present age. Can working for the church honestly be embraced by families, given that being a faithful follower of Jesus with a church vocation seems less and less to frequently to provide a reasonable living wage? Are we American Christians capable of putting aside the cultural expectations of success and seek instead the spiritual expectations of God? Which loyalty will we adhere to as primary?

There is a hymn which I picked up into my own rule of life.

Freely, Freely you have received,
Freely, Freely Give.
Go in my name and because you believe,
Others will know that I live.

But, I have to admit, that since 2009 I have begun to be fully tested as to my loyalty to this principle, and that is because the nation’s economic woes have really pressed upon our household. 

How I treasure the words of one who tells me they “are holding me in the great heart of God as you seek right livelihood.” I also pray that my mother, God rest her soul, is now petitioning on my behalf, but not for a seat at the right or the left hand of Jesus. I am simply hoping that she is petitioning for a stirring in the hearts of people who decide who shall and will be called to positions which provide just compensation for doing good and faithful work that brings glory to God.

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