Preached on 20 September 2015 at St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, Tacoma, WA
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year B
American speech is peppered with superlatives these days. Everything is Perfect or Great or Awesome. And in this campaign season it is ramped up even more. Some candidates portray the current situation as utter failure and then they argue about which will be the greatest; which is best able to restore greatness. This rhetoric of superlative is not confined to the campaigns, though, or even to politics. It’s all around us.
And then we hear this morning what Jesus has to say about what it takes to be great. Jesus has just explained to this disciples for the second time that he will be betrayed and killed and then rise again. The next thing we hear is that they’re arguing amongst themselves about which one of them is greater than the others. You can almost hear Jesus’ exasperated sigh. They still don’t get it. The point is to serve, not jockey for position. In fact this time he says they are to be servant of all.
Alongside the gospel reading we have the Book of Proverbs. This is a book of advice to young men at court. It is about forming the character of society through those with power and influence.
Last week we heard an excerpt from the first chapter; Woman Wisdom’s advice and warnings. This morning we hear from the final chapter about the Woman of Worth, the Valorous Woman.
This passage is instruction about choosing a wife given by the Queen Mother to her son, who will one day be king. She advises that there is more to a woman than beauty and babies.
The woman she describes is strong, valorous. The word translated as “capable,” is the same word that when describing a man is translated as mighty, like a warrior at the height of his strength and power.
She is intelligent and wise. She is a shrewd businesswoman and skilled at the many arts from making fine linen to fine wine.
She manages the household – the work, the staff, the supplies and inventory. She works incredibly hard and provides for her family. They are fed, clothed, and warm, come what may. She serves the community; she is generous with the poor and cares for the needy. Above all, she fears God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Woman Wisdom proclaims in chapter one. And we hear it again, here in the final chapter of the book. The Woman of Valor in this proverb appears to be the embodiment of Wisdom.
It is children’s homily Sunday at the 10:00. I will tell the children the story of Mama Miti. Here is what the book says about the real life Mama Miti – the Mother of Trees.
Wangari Muta Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel peace Prize. That was in 2004. That was one of her many amazing firsts.
Wangari was born on April 1, 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya. At that time girls from rural Kenya rarely received an education. But Wangari studied in the United States and in Germany. When she returned to Kenya, she worked in veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi and became the first woman in central or eastern Africa to earn a PhD. She taught at the university and eventually became the head of the veterinary medicine faculty, another first: no woman had headed any department at any university in Kenya before.
Wangari Maathai’s study of animals and nature made her a leader in the fields of ecology, sustainable development, natural resources, and wildlife. In 1976 while working for the National Council of Women of Kenya, she started the Green Belt Movement, a national grassroots organization to combat deforestation of Kenya. [Through the years, she courageously and consistently argued for peaceful coexistence of people and nature. Often battling political and economic powers that stood to gain financially from cutting down the trees. Her work for the environment landed her in prison in 1991, but she was freed due to an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign. She’s been arrested many times since then for her steady campaign for peace, but no one has been able to stop her. In 2002 the people of Kenya elected her to their parliament. Two years later she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.]
[In 1976 Wangari Maathai] introduced the idea of planting trees for peace to Kenyan citizens. Since then, the Green Belt Movement has planted more than thirty million trees in Kenya and in other countries of Africa. The trees prevent soil erosion, filter water and air, and provide firewood and food and timber for shelters. The work is done primarily by village women, who are reclaiming their rights and responsibilities as keepers of the earth and caretakers of its future. But men now help too.
Wangari Maathai’s work is the embodiment of the Kenyan notion of harambee – the spirit of pulling together for the common good.[i]
She is a Woman of Wisdom, a Woman of Valor; serving her people, caring for the land. I think that in Jesus’ estimation, she would be counted among the great. She is great not because she seeks greatness, but because she seeks the Greater Good.
Taken together – the gospel and the proverbs – we see that the Valorous Woman is part of a bigger system that is creating a trustworthy world. It’s called the Kingdom of God. We, too are invited to take part.
Notice that she does it in the everyday activities of life in her home and in her community. Mama Miti does it in her home, in her community – one person at a time, one tree at a time.
[i] Napoli, Donna Jo. Mama Miti. Kadir Nelson, illustrator. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).