Pentecost 16 September 20, 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31                                                              

James 3:13-18; 4:1-3, 7-8a                                                              

Mark 9:30-37

George Herbert is one of the greatest poets in the English language. He is also a saint in the Episcopal Church. He is honored as a saint not so much for his poetry, though most of it is religious, as for his life as an Anglican priest – a country parson, as he called himself. Born into one of England’s great noble families in 1593, Herbert withdrew from a life of political ambition and power to become the rector of a little country parish, not unlike Holy Cross. There he ministered and wrote his poetry until his untimely death at age 44. Herbert also wrote a book called The Country Parson, a guide for himself and others to the life a priest should live. In his book, he talks about prayer and preaching, about study, about keeping the church building clean and neat, about the ordering of the parson’s personal household.

And he devotes one chapter to “The Parson in Circuit.” Every weekday afternoon, Herbert says, the country parson should get on his horse and ride through a section of his parish, where he will find members of his flock, not dressed up and on their good behavior as on Sundays, but “naturally as they are, wallowing in the midst of their affairs.” And as he visits them, he is to commend them for what he finds good and reprove them where they need correction.

Herbert is careful to describe how this reproof part of the parson’s work is to be done, not arrogantly or abusively, but he is clear that it is to be done, without hesitation and in detail. A major part of the parson’s life, indeed a major part of the work of the Church in Herbert’s day, had to do with the practical moral formation of the people. It was expected and it was accepted, whether or not it was liked or paid attention to.

George Herbert lived, of course, 400 years ago. Things are different now. I do not have a horse to ride about my parish, and even if I did I would find very few of you at home on a weekday afternoon. Even fewer would I find willing to accept “moral reproofs” from their vicar! Most of us would feel that our morality, how we conduct our lives, is our business, no one else’s. We look to the Church for comfort, inspiration, maybe some general precepts on how to live a fulfilling life – but not moral reproof. When we consult the priest, we expect him or her to provide the sort of nonjudgmental care that we would expect from a psychotherapist. And that, indeed, is the approach clergy today are trained to take.

Now I say all this as a way into the readings today – readings, at least the first two, from Proverbs and James, full of good advice and, yes, moral reproof. I must admit I groaned when I saw I had to preach on them this morning. I thought of Eliza Doolittle’s drunken father in the musical My Fair Lady, who sang about the Church that “they’re always throwing goodness at you, but with a little bit of luck you’ll run amuck.” Who wants to have goodness thrown at them?

And yet I have to say that I think we could all of us stand to have more attention paid to the sort of good advice that wisdom literature like Proverbs and James attempts to provide. Often I get involved in people’s lives pastorally only after things have “run amuck” and there’s no easy way forward. It may be alcohol or drugs. Sometimes it’s sex and pregnancy out of wedlock. Very commonly it’s getting into debt. Often people not taking care of their bodies, not saving money.

The typical conservative reaction to situations like these is to blame the victims for “making bad choices.” They got themselves into it, now let them get themselves out! The typical liberal reaction is to blame society. We should have a better health care system, better sex education in school, more counseling and a better “safety net” for those in crisis. The this industry or the that industry should be regulated and forced not to hurt us. Often I find myself having both the conservative and the liberal reaction. The individual is to blame, but also the society.

And always I find myself wishing that people had been more diligent through their lives in coming to church, paying attention to what was being preached and taught there, and placing their lives under the judgment of God – a God who, like George Herbert’s country parson, comforts us, shows mercy, but also reproves. A God whose long wisdom is deeper than ours.

It is not so much that when we come to church week by week we get “goodness thrown at us” or a lot of specific rules set out for us to follow. That day is long past. It is rather that regular worship and Christian formation shapes our underlying character. Here is where the gospel reading for this morning comes in. Jesus and his disciples are walking along the road of life, heading like all of us to their eventual rendezvous with God on Calvary.

Jesus is talking to them about this, about the ultimate seriousness of life. But the disciples are arguing with one another about which of them is the greatest – the very argument that the world and its values of success, making money, seeking selfish pleasure, are all about. So Jesus reproves them, calling them to be like little children. Not little children in a sentimental sense, but children in the sense of being open to learning, understanding that they need guidance, need to listen to wisdom and authority. For life with God, Jesus says, is not about pursuit of greatness, but about being “last of all and servant of all.”

It is that sort of message, heard week after week in one form or another, that forms us as Christians. It does not mean that we will never get into trouble in life, never face moral dilemmas. Of course not! But it means that we will make fewer mistakes, that our crises will be less likely to be of our own making, and that when trouble comes we will have more resources to move forward. We all need that, I think. We all need it. We need it even more today in our complex and troubled world, than 400 years ago in the rural England of Blessed George Herbert, poet and country parson.

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