Strength and Dignity Are Hers

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | May 8, 2022

Proverbs 31:10-31

One time I conducted a funeral for a woman in the church and I used the Proverbs passage describing a “capable wife” as the basis for my tribute. According to how her children described her. Or at least the ones who met with me to discuss the funeral service.

The one son who was not there was the oldest sibling. He seemed to fancy himself as the boss. He called me after the funeral and was angry at how I described his mother. Angry that she was portrayed as a loving and devoted wife and mother.

“That’s not the mother I knew!” He told me. “Where did you come up with that story?!”

I told him that I came up with that story when I met with his siblings, who described their mother in the way that I told her story. If he had information that was important for the story of his mother’s life, he wasn’t there to share it. Besides, funeral tributes are not for airing dirty laundry. I listened. I knew he was grieving, and it wasn’t really about me. I offered no advice, because there was none to give. I wished him well.

On one level, the passage in Proverbs describes a woman in a traditional role. It broadens that role to include empowerment. Like so much of ancient scripture written within the confines of a particular time and culture, it is relevant to our time and place.

This is the story of a woman I knew whose name was Betty. When Betty turned sixty, she was at a crossroads. Her children were all grown and gone. Her husband, to whom she had been married 40 years, was not well. He had taken an early retirement because of failing health. She might have dreamed that retirement would consist of travel, pleasant walks and shared moments; the reality was medication schedules and confinement to home. 

She had never worked outside the home. There were times when she wanted to, when money was tight, but her husband was old school and somewhat controlling. She didn’t drive a car in those days, she never had to. In the neighborhood where she lived, it was easy enough to get around. The store was right there, the schools were right there, anything a person could think of doing was all within a short walk of home. If there was need to go further, the bus stop was right on the corner.

At sixty, she decided it was time for change. So, with the grudging acceptance of her husband, she learned how to drive, and she got her driver’s license.

But then what? Where to go? What to do? It seemed to Betty that the something that was missing in her life, was more than a driver’s license. The freedom she longed for was more than the ability to come and go as she pleased. There was the feeling of an emptiness in her soul.

She was an avid reader, belonging to several book clubs. She subscribed to at least a dozen magazines, and she read them all, just because she had an insatiable curiosity about life. Maybe it came from all those years when she stayed at home. Reading was her window to the outside world. But no amount of reading could seem to satisfy the emptiness she felt within.

One of her sons thought that she might want to try attending church. Get to know people. Religion? What was religion? She was not raised in a religious home. Her parents had only dabbled in church as part of the social scenery of the small town where she grew up. Maybe her son was right. He even offered to go with her. Though he lived in a town some 90 miles away, every weekend he drove over and took his mother to church.

They tried one church in the neighborhood. It seemed like there was always some activity going on around the place. It was even the same denomination as the one her son attended. She went there two Sundays in a row, in fact. But to the people of that church, her presence seemed to make little difference. No one greeted her. No one offered a friendly hello. So, that was enough of that. Her son offered to take her around and try some other churches. But no, if she would go, it was something she really needed to do on her own.

There was another church nearby. A small neighborhood church. Maybe she would go there. One of her other sons was involved in a church of that denomination, but he lived too far away to go with her. She would go it alone. The first Sunday when she walked through the door, she wasn’t sure what to expect, but she was greeted warmly. There were others like her there and many of them even lived in the neighborhood. The pastor greeted her and seemed genuinely glad of her presence. 

She was invited to attend a bible study. Since she was curious about anything to do with reading and study, she was happy to accept the invitation. Over the weeks that followed, she met every week with the pastor and a group of other women. She began to discover what was missing in her life. It wasn’t a thing, unless the presence of God can be called a thing; the emptiness seemed more like the lack of a relationship. A relationship with God. She decided that believing in Jesus Christ was what she wanted to do, and that being a Christian was what she wanted to be.

She joined the church. Her husband even decided, what the heck, he would join too. He couldn’t attend much because of his health, but she got so much out of it that he wanted to encourage her.

Now here’s the truth about smaller congregations, and I’m sure you all know what I mean. When someone new shows up and wants to get involved, there is plenty for them to do. It wasn’t long before Betty came to the attention of the nominating committee. She was invited to serve in an official capacity in the church. She was invited to be a deacon.

A deacon, she wondered. What is a deacon? She was told that deacons have a special ministry in the church. Their ministry is to follow the example of Jesus Christ, to offer sympathy and service, to minister to people who are in need, to visit the sick, to befriend people, to support those who are in distress.

But why her? Why did they want her to be a deacon? For one thing, it being a small church, they needed people. But they also were looking for persons of spiritual character, who were honest and led good lives, people who could demonstrate compassion and who offered sound judgment.

That sounded like a big responsibility. Could she fulfill it? There was not much question in her mind that she was willing, but was she able? It seemed as though this was exactly what she had been looking for. A life filled with spiritual meaning, and a chance to serve others and maybe make a difference. She would do it. She accepted the call to service. In that acceptance, she discovered a call to ministry.

In time, Betty learned that the church had connections to a wider ministry and once a week she volunteered at a local agency that provided food and clothing to people who were in need. Providing clean clothes to someone who had a job interview gave her a sense that her life was making a difference. When her term as a deacon was completed, the nominating committee of the church asked her to serve as an elder. She gladly accepted this role and brought to it the same enthusiasm with which she had served as a deacon.

Sometimes people will ask me, “What do deacons do?” They do a lot of things around the church. Theirs is a ministry of service. They serve the church in many ways, seen and unseen. They promote fellowship by making sure we have coffee and treats after church. They make sure the sanctuary is decorated to reflect the seasons. When someone dies, they rise to the occasion and fix the meal so that the family can gather after the funeral service.

Not all churches have Deacons. Some churches, like this one, have folks who do pretty much the same thing, which is to pitch in where there is need, to serve, to do the work, to rise to the occasion, fill the gap, pick up the slack, to serve.

In every congregation it has been my privilege to work with over the years, there have been people who serve. Whatever their motivation might be, it can usually be simply stated as, “out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Never once have I heard someone say – This place would fall apart without me or, make sure I get the credit I’m due, or you people don’t know how lucky you are to have me.

It’s about caring, and in that care, showing the example of Christ. They answer the call because they care. They care enough about the lives of others that they are willing to share their time and their heart.

When Betty called me and told me she was going to be a deacon in the Presbyterian church, I was genuinely surprised. “I joined Eastminster Presbyterian Church and I’m going to be a deacon,” she said. That was just like Betty, not to tell me anything until it had already happened. I will always be grateful to the people of our church who serve. For all they do, and for all that they are. For when one woman was at a crossroad, the church was there for her, and being involved and serving gave new meaning to her life.

Betty died three years ago at the age of 96. I was able to see her as she lay dying. My last words to her at the end were, “I love you, Mom.” Amen.

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