Musings on the texts for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost. And, in our attempts to improve this offernig, here is the Diocesan link to the texts so that you might read them...
And, now... on with the show.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
This is not a book for the prudish. (Nor was it written by Solomon, though for some reason it is attributed to him just as so many of the Psalms are attributed to David, even though both crime bosses – I mean, kings - were long dead when this book and the bulk of the Psalms were composed). Besides, it is hard to imagine the man who so ruthlessly eliminated his enemies – including members of his own family – would have such poetry in his soul.
But, this is a remarkable book for many reasons – and not just that the voice in this week’s excerpt is a female voice, or that the female’s is the dominant voice in this composition. It is a celebration of erotic love. And, no matter how much Judaism or Christianity struggle to allegorize the content – God’s love for Israel or Christ’s love for the Church – the passion and joy expressed by the couple transcends those attempts.
In addition to the two lovers, there are at least two groups whose voices are heard at various times in this book - the Daughters of Jerusalem and a group of male voices – who act as a chorus. Still, in today’s text, we have only the woman’s voice as she speaks directly, and also quotes her lover. And, that text undeniably – like the larger work – celebrates human sexuality as part of God’s creation. In fact, the garden setting may well be intended to evoke the mythical Garden of Eden, where the woman and the man are in harmony and balance with one another and with the world. On a deeper level, as we read we can imagine the brokenness of relationships between humans and between humans and the earth, is healed. (The natural beauty of the world around them serves to reflect their love. This is paradise. God’s creation is very, very, very good. Enjoy it).
Cooler still – as you read that greater work, you cannot help but notice that the woman and man are in an egalitarian and non-hierarchical relationship. And, as you read, you discover that there are threats revealed to disrupt and regulate the peace and balance that they have found. Still, in our text, the lovers speak of their love for each other’s physical person and offer the necessary reminder that our physical bodies are beautiful and beloved, and that loving relationships occur within and not in spite of our bodies.
So, what went wrong with Christianity that sex becomes such a battlefield?
The Greek philosophical tradition that was so important to the Church fathers – though I know how and why it happened, it still strikes me as odd that Jesus would cease being a Jew and become a Greek philosopher – attempted to reject and/or restrict the sensuality and sexual love that is prevalent in this text. That tradition went to far as to separate flesh and spirit so that the body and its desires were regarded as lower and lesser than the spiritual things. (You know, I once led a symposium on Paul’s concepts of sarx and soma. You would be wise to NOT ask me to dust it off). But, in our text, there is no division. Body and soul are one here, united in love.
One way to heal the wounds inflicted by Christian tradition may be an incarnational approach, focusing – as Wil Gafney puts it – “on the humanity in which Jesus of Nazareth was clothed. That humanity was not just miserable unredeemed flesh, but also joyful, loving, touching, sexually mature flesh.”
James 1: 17 - 27
As noted by Paul Nuechterlein – and, as is often the case - it is too bad that we do not get the verses that precede our assigned text. What comes before reminds us that God is not the source for anything evil, but that temptation is born of our own desires – God does not tempt us. (“But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.”)
Instead, God is pure graciousness. As our text proclaims, “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow…” As is the case with the temptation born of our own desires, any God that calls for vengeance, any God that creates division, any God that condemns the natural beauty and wonder of our own being and all of our senses - see the Song of Solomon notes above – is a God of our own creation. (I am reminded of the 1 John proclamation that we recently read in our Wednesday morning bible study, that God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all). The darkness we experience is what we bring from within our own hearts and minds. Which leads us to the Gospel text…
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
One of the things that I admire most about the Jesus who is portrayed by the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) is the ease with which he offends his listeners.
(Interesting to note that today’s story is paired in Mark – and in Matthew - with the story of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus trusting that he can heal her daughter. We get that story next week, but the contrast is that the Pharisees are offended by what Jesus says, but the Canaanite woman is not – even with that ‘dog’ comment. The point – she risks offense, discomfort, perhaps more, to create the possibility of something new, and as such, she is able to achieve a breakthrough that is beyond the capabilities of the lawyers).
In that light, today’s offense – while it provides the vehicle for the larger question about cleanliness and defilement and all of the customs and traditions that accompany those issues – at its heart is the heart, and what proceeds from it. As Jesus says, the Pharisees hearts are far from God, while we can easily see that heart of the Canaanite is with her daughter and the one who can heal her. Put another way, the pious and law-abiding Pharisees lack faith, while the Gentile dog has great faith. (This plays beautifully into another comment that Jesus makes later in the gospel – “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense in me.”)
Now, about that larger question. Mark’s gospel is one step in a new direction, which – among other things – the obliteration of the Temple and the cult forces a decision. Part of that process is making the distinction between those things that are human constructs and human traditions, and those things that are truly God’s desires. As inferred from the notes above about the text from James – there is a danger when the structures of human culture are seen as being ordered by the gods, especially those who are grounded in sacred violence. (We’ve talked about this).
Stories like this one bring us to the heart of the matter – Jesus comes to usher in the Kingdom of God, which is distinctly different from the culture that binds us. God’s culture is based on creation (nature, natural, balanced – hey, the Song of Solomon) not humanly constructed obstacles to the kingdom which again – bringing in James – we have deceived ourselves into thinking are ordained by God.
Nuechterlein again: “Every group of people thinks that they are made by god to be distinctive and superior to other groups of people — unless they have lived under the oppression of one group for so long that they have come to see themselves as inferior. This is the way human cultures have operated from the beginning. Only God’s Culture in Jesus the Messiah is truly different — and the prophetic anticipation of the Messiah that one sees summed up in a verse like Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Here's the point I want to make – Living into God’s culture is a long, long, long, yet unfinished process (What did we say – It takes Phil Connors 10,000 years to overcome himself in the movie Groundhog Day). It began with the prophetic anticipations of prophets like Amos and Isaiah, came to full revelation in Jesus, and is continuing to be worked out through history. It is hard work, however, to allow time-honored traditions to die, especially when we think they are derived from God. (Think of the misery we have caused countless men, women and children in our history - and recent history as well – because we were convinced our laws and structures were moral and God-approved and not our own cultural preferences).