Updated: Oct 10, 2021
St. Aidan's, San Francisco, September 19, 2021
Proper 20B: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
The Rev. Amy Newell-Large
Let me tell you, I have tried to be a good person. A wise and peaceful person. I have tried and tried, and I have failed and failed! In my contemplative spaces there’s an admiration for people who are calm, quiet, undisturbed. But we can’t all be Thich Nhat Hanh or Thomas Merton. I am an outgoing, and expressive person! So how do I accept this energy and passion that I have, and also cultivate the wise, peaceful, compassionate virtues of the type of person I want to be? How can my emotional space be cultivated into strength, harnessed not to be eliminated, but recognized for the transformative energy of my emotional instincts? The readings that we hear today all ask us to consider what it means for us to be good people, to live a life of peace and wisdom, love and openness. I wrestle with what kind of person I want to be, and how to cultivate a genuine self who lives the virtues I aspire to. I can only live my life as me, with my energy, emotions, and passions and desires. But this does not mean either a complete wild roaming of my emotions, nor does itmean a complete suppression of who I am in order to fit the “virtuous” label I admire.
And it drives me nuts when people think they need to suppress their emotional response or eradicate emotions altogether! Jesus doesn’t ask that. But nor does he advocate an unbridled “it’s my way or the highway” response to our emotional uprisings. Last week in Proverbs, we were called by Wisdom to listen to her cries to help us navigate our struggles. Yet, we as humans, the disciples in Mark, don’t listen. They didn’t listen to Jesus when he offers the foretelling of his death. In the Epistle James points out that we’d rather turn away from wisdom and give into conflicts and disputes among us- when we can’t have what we want, when we seek after selfish desires we will face conflict. James writes that because we do not ask for the right thing we end up in struggle- wild to our emotional state that bucks us about like a bronco.
In the Gospel of Mark when the disciples face conflict among themselves Jesus does not tell them to stop feeling the need to be great, he does not tell them to stop seeking greatness. The emotional experience is there. It is a human emotional desire. Dr. King, in his Drum Major Instinct sermon delivered in his home parish of Ebenezer Baptist Church preaches that this instinct is only natural. “We begin early to ask life to put us first,” he says. He reminds us that children innately develop this drum major instinct to be first, they are “a little bundle of ego.” He goes on, “Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it... Everybody likes to be praised, because of this real drum major instinct.”
The disciples want to be the greatest, they too have this instinct, I have this instinct. Sometimes I’d be told that I was smart, I let this get to my head and I would push myself unreasonably to be the smartest! (not the smartest ever, but just even in whatever small group or space I was in that context). OR I’ve been told that I’m strong so my mind runs with that and I think I’ll be the strongest! I seek that recognition and feel defensive ofthat status or threatened if someone else is strong or smart too.
And the drum major instinct when we let it go can become an obsession, oppressing ourselves if we don’t meet the often arbitrary and impossible standards we’ve set for ourselves. We do significant violence against ourselves when we allow this instinct to gallop unbridled. It is the wild bronco controlling us without regard for our spiritual orientation, pushing against any attempt to harness this emotional energy. Dr. King preaches, “the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct... the other problem is when you don’t harness the drum major instinct, this uncontrolled aspect of it, is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism.” The danger is the boundaries that can arise when we see scarcity with greatness. We worry that if someone else is great somehow I cannot be great too. I noticed this in my homiletics class in particular last year, if someone gave a great sermon, was mine somehow less great? As if preventing my classmates from giving sermons, keeping preaching an exclusive activity, would keep me being great, so no one could threaten it!
The unharnessed drum major instinct leads me to not only feel threatened by others, and build a defense of exclusivism, but it also perverts the potential for God’s use of my drum major instinct.
But as I look to the reading from James, and consider the message of Jesus I am called to ask- what if my drum major instinct were bridled by love? And can I entrust the reins to Wisdom?
As problematic, and ridiculous as the Proverbs passage sounds (and I mean it does sound totally absurd- please note that women do not need to be held to any of this). I want to offer a full embrace of our Wisdom Woman who can come to our aid in bridling our drum major instinct and giving her the reins to help us understand the options for our energy. Last week we read from the beginning of Proverbs, the introduction to the Wisdom Woman who calls to us in the streets, who offers us alternatives, and we scoff at her outstretched hand. The result of our rejection of Wisdom is this unharnessed drum major instinct and the harm caused by our conflict- both internal and social. When I have let my drum major instinct buck about I am plunged into depth of self-doubt and criticism, my oppressive thought patterns go unharnessed and I exclude even myself from the impossible standard I have set (“I’m too dumb to do this work, only smart people can do this work” “I’m not calm enough, I’ll never be calm enough to be a contemplative”) and I begin to develop a kind of imposter syndrome. To bridle the drum major instinct with love calls upon the cross, and Wisdom Woman, and our desire for greatness. Each from our readings today. In Mark, Jesus tries to tell the disciples about the cross, it is a kind of strange introduction to their conflict about greatness. But I realize that he preemptively gave them the answer to their question about greatness. To be great they must orient themselves to the cross. Jesus did not admonish the disciples and tell them to stop seeking greatness altogether (to exclude themselves from being great), he did not tell them to suppress their desire. But, Dr. King points out, Jesus “reoriented their priorities. And Jesus said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. Its a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That’s what I want you to do.’” Jesus in Mark tells the disciples to be first in hospitality, to be first in a radical welcome. And I believe this is important not only for welcoming others, but embracing and knowing our own belonging too. I am not an imposter, I belong as I am. Through the love of the cross- liberative love, I can know freedom from my unharnessed thought patterns that would keep me tossed about and trampled.
Mark helps us shape the reorientation of our drum major instinct, to bridle with love our desire for greatness and accept the natural occurrence of our emotional landscape. James notes the conflict that arises when we have not bridled our instinct with love- and while we may not feel we deal in death, I invite us to always examine the network of our daily lives and indeed understand our death-dealing reality of exploitation and oppression woven into the fabric of our lives.
Yet, the task remains- how to bridle the wild bronco? It all sounds so easy- just reorient to love! But reorienting the well-worn patterns from our childhood takes substantial work. Last week Margaret reminded us how difficult this work feels. “This is a life’s work,” she said, “It’s a choice we need to come back to again and again.” Here I see that I can turn to Wisdom Woman, to take refuge in her household and open my heart to God.
As I mentioned, the passage from Proverbs sounds ridiculous. But a key part of this chapter is missing, before our passage picks up the King is recounting his mother’s desire for him to marry the Torah. The Queen, his mother, had made a vow to her faith and saw her son’s relationship with Scripture as the fulfillment of her vow. So these verses we read are an allegorical view of Scripture as the wife and head of her household. Wisdom Woman- she provides a household of comfort (wool and flax), she provides a household of teachings we would not have considered (good from far away), she provides nourishment, compassion, and insights. Her lamp is always lit, for we always have access to her. And others will recognize that we dwell in her household by how we are in public. She is the support and encouragement we need to do this hard work, and we can turn to her again and again, “Wisdom Woman! Help me find shelter in your house. Help me entrust my drum major instinct to you, that in your compassionate and tender hold my struggle is tamed, and transformed with love.”
The hope being that through recognizing my drum major instinct I can turn to Wisdom Woman to disrupt my habitual pattern of desire and cultivate the transformation of my emotional energy. Being bridled by love opens my desire to the movement of God- an openness Cameron called us to two weeks ago. Being open to God’s movement takes getting out of our own way, it means noticing our drum major instinct, entrusting it to Wisdom, reorienting to love, and then we can take the action that best serves God in the moment. This semester I have a professor that has set their course up to be taken Pass/Fail, no letter grades. Doing school work not for a grade is a throwback to my Montessori elementary school days, and I haven’t been so sure how I feel about that. I like getting good grades, it’s a recognition of my hard work, a point of greatness I feel in myself. So what’s that about? Where is my desire for good grades coming from, and why am I afraid of losing that? Hm. What if I bridle this desire for greatness with love? Practically speaking, it looks like noticing when my inner academic critic is doubting my work, or when my drive is pushing me to another hour of reading when my eyes are heavy with sleep. When I notice, calling upon Wisdom Woman, “Wisdom Woman give me shelter! Disrupt my patterns! Help me turn to love!” Then I’ll stop. Resist the oppressive mindset and give myself a few minutes to breath, feel the strength of Wisdom’s hand on the reins of love, and open to God in that moment. From there I can decide what will best serve God - criticizing my writing style, staying up another hour? Or living with compassion for myself and cultivating a pattern of being a drum major for self-love.
Through this process of noticing my drum major instinct, entrusting Wisdom to support my reorientation to the cross, and being bridled by love I can open myself to build the
whole world into Wisdom Woman’s household. Beyond my internal work, I can serve others with love and begin to build new patterns of drum major instinct even in our structures of social living. I wonder if you have groups that you participate in that could use a reorientation to love? How do you run meetings (is everyone welcome or are there feelings of exclusion)? How do you participate as a consumer (what patterns of keeping up with the Joneses drives your wallet so you feel greater than your neighbors)? How do you structure your class (Pass/Fail, with grades)? How can we hold onto this new definition of greatness? How can we make a new world where we are all dwelling in Wisdom Woman’s household, where we welcome all to a radical belonging, and know our own belonging too? It begins with our desire for greatness: may I be a drum major for belonging, a drum major of welcome, a drum major for hospitality, a drum major bridled by love.