Proper 17B: Beloved

Grass and Sky (DTF301137)OLD TESTAMENT: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

Read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

This week we are continuing our theme of wisdom by looking at one of the Wisdom Writings. The writing known as the Song of Solomon, or the Hebrew title the Song of Songs, is not the usual fare for Scripture. Essentially, it is a love song between lovers full of what can be characterized as erotic imagery and many are surprised that it is included in the Bible at all. In fact, the language could almost be considered secular, with no mention of God at all. Its inclusion in the canon produced what could be considered a great debate among rabbis in the first century. Some considered it little more than a drinking song. The matter was settled by Rabbi Akiba, the great teacher and mystic, who said, “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” (Mishnah Yadayim 3: 5)

Because while modern scholars often view the writing as a celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman, both Jewish and Christian theologians of previous centuries claimed that it described the deep and abiding mutual love between God and Israel or Christ and the Church. Mystics illustrate the power of the book to shape our understanding of our life with God—a deep yearning that knows only the language of intimate communion.

This week’s passage is the only text from the writing that is in the Lectionary. It describes a love marked by fidelity and mutuality. The lovers are faithful to each other. They have eyes for no one else. The love is one that is mutual and equal. (In fact, the woman speaks more than the man! She is in no way passive or submissive.) Commentator Ellen Davis argues that in a reversal of the punishment of Eve in Genesis 3 (“your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”), the woman in the song declares “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.” She says that there is an abiding mutuality that repairs the rupture and places the lovers (and love) back in the Garden.

Human love and Divine love are not mutually exclusive. They are not unrelated. Human love, at its best, is a reflection of God’s love. So, before my grandmother becomes offended at the implication that there is a part of the Holy Bible that is part of the tradition of erotica, remember that we are dealing with a God in Christ whose love for us is both shocking to our sensibilities and seeking to shock us out of all the ties to the ways of death, including our own prejudices and our own “proper” ways. We are called not only to love God but to be “in love” with God. Implicit in this poem is a sort of pining absence, a longing so deep that the poet cannot be complete without the One that is loved. I think that’s the way we’re called to be. I mean, think about it, we were created in the image of God, made with a shape and a sense into which only God fits. And we struggle. We struggle to find what fits into that shape. And in the absence, in the longing, we finally find that Presence of God, we finally find that One in whom we are destined to fall in love. Seventeenth century mathematician, Blaise Pascal spoke of it as a “God-shaped vacuum” in every human, a hole that only God could fill. It’s like being in love.

Perhaps it is the language that makes us bristle, that makes us squirm a bit in our pews. Perhaps we are even a bit uncomfortable with a God who is so intimate, so a part of us, that falling in love is all we can do. Perhaps we really haven’t thought through what it means to be created in the image of someone else. It means that we have to let ourselves go, that we have to become who God called us to be, that we have to realize that there is something more, that WE are something more, that we are created in the image of our Beloved, that we are created to fall in love with God. It is about completion; it is about wholeness; it is about being who we were created to be. It is about falling in love with God and falling into God.

Our lectionary does not include the rest of the poem. I want to read the next four verses. Here’s how they go:

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.”   My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.  Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

We know that God transforms.  We know that Jesus Christ redeems.   We know the Holy Spirit walks with us each and every day.  Do we know what that means?  Do we understand that that depicts the most intimate relationship imaginable?  It is more than loving God.  It is rather understanding that we are called to fill ourselves with God, to fill that God-shaped hole in our being with the very Spirit, the very One in which we live and move and have our being.  We are  not just called to love and support and figure God out in this endeavor but rather to fall in love with God.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your understanding of the relationship between God and us that is represented here?
  3. What does it mean for you to “fall in love” with God?
  4. Why do we have such a hard time understanding that type of love in terms of our relationship with God?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: James 1: 17-27

Read the New Testament Lectionary passage

The book of James was once called the “epistle of straw” by Martin Luther. Apparently he did not like it. But the letter offers driving questions concerning the shape of the Christian life. The author is aware that people sometimes limit their understanding of faith to a simple set of claims. For the writer, this is inadequate. Here, the faith that counts is the faith that is active in one’s life, the faith that shapes one’s life and brings one closer to God.

The verses for this week first explore the question, “Who is God?” For the writer, God is identified by what God gives. Every perfect gift comes from God. Every perfect truth is of God. The second question is, “Who are you?” The writer speaks of a lack of connection and correspondence between hearing and doing, between what one should be and what one does. For me, I think the main word here is “be”. We are not just called to listen; we are not just called to do; we are called to “be”.

The passage calls us to look at our lives, to look at ourselves in light of this God of Lights who has shone a light of illumination as to who we are called to be. This is where we see ourselves. This is how God creates us to be. Why do we miss that? This epistle is often seen as a sort of “Christian Wisdom letter”. Faith and works are not opposed to each other, as Luther claimed. They’re not even disconnected. The truly wise will live the way they believe. In the understanding of the writer of James, that is “pure”religion.

As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is skill in living. For what good is a truth if we don’t know how to live it? What good is an intention if we can’t sustain it?” True holiness is not so much an absence of bad things. It is presence of compassion. It is about the way we treat others, the way we treat Creation, the way we live our lives.

You know, the church could do worse than be an “inner beauty” shop–a place where love is shared and truth is told and the beauty of becoming is the work of the community.  For plain old mirrors are incredibly unreliable witnesses and companions–we can get stuck all by ourselves like Narcissus.  Or like the person in James, we can look in the mirror by ourselves and then rush away and forget not just what we look like but who we are.  For when we look into the mirror by ourselves, we don’t see us.  Not the real me or the real you–who are so much deeper and more interesting and real and eternal than what we can see by ourselves in even the clearest light with the finest silvered glass.  To know and to love the real me and the real you–we need each other–to look into the Christ mirror of human being and say when I see you, I see power.  I see compassion, creativity, bravery, humor, loyalty, endurance, forgiveness, wisdom, abundance.  I see potential.  When I look with you in the mirror of Christ, I see the beauty of our belovedness beyond the telling. When is the last time you looked in a mirror?  Do you remember who you saw?  Do you need someone to look with you?  I do. (From “Looking in the Mirror”, by Rev. Martha Sterne, August 30, 2009, available at http://day1.org/1406-looking_in_the_mirror, accessed 29 August, 2012)

Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.

But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, it no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.

Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless on their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. (Eugene Peterson, The Message / Remix”, p. 2206.)

 

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. Why is it so hard for us to keep “hearing” and “doing” connected?
  3. How do we typically understand truth and what does that say about our faith?
  4. What does this passage say to you about wisdom?
  5. What does this passage say to you about who you are and what you are called to be?

GOSPEL: Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This passage gives us a look at how Jesus dealt with the predominant culture in which he lived. The issue of what is clean and unclean and how such uncleanness is passed on, of course has its roots in the Old Testament. The objection was probably not born out of a concern about hygiene but, rather, “following the rules”. The assumption was that if unclean hands touched liquid, the liquid became unclean. So, then, if the liquid touched the food, it would become impure. If the person ate the food, the person became unclean. To guard against this, there were groups that ritually washed hands before a meal.

This was rather an extreme view, even for this time. The writer of Mark implied that this was only an “outward” observance, rather than a mark of true faith. For the writer, this really made no sense at all. The writer of Mark is encouraging readers to rethink the commandments posed in Scripture through the lens of our hearts, the lens of faith. Discerning what practices actually embody God’s will are more often learned from getting things wrong than from getting things right.

Rules and order and doctrine are not bad things. They help us make sense of it all. But when they themselves become the objects of “worship”, the “sacred cows”, then we cease to be who we are called to be. Reverence belongs to God rather than those things that point toward God.

 

Reverence stands in awe of something—something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits—so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.  An irreverent soul who is unable to feel awe in the presence of things higher than the self is also unable to feel respect in the presence of things as it sees as lower than the self…Reverence requires a certain pace.  It requires a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of the original plan. (Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith, p. 21, 24.)

 

So, all these rules and dogmas and liturgy and theology that make up our religion are not our faith journey, but they lead us through it. I think an authentic faith is one that weaves the two together. It is not that they are always evenly distributed, but they are always connected in some way. I guess if I were to put it simply in the context of my own Christian faith tradition, I would say that “religion without spirituality” is practicing the religion about Jesus. It sounds good, but it doesn’t have any depth, no engagement. And “spirituality without religion” has a good possibility of becoming the religion about myself. I think they need to come together—both spiritual religion and religious spirituality. Then one will have the opportunity to practice the religion of Jesus. I think that is the way we get out of ourselves and become one with God in a real and authentic way. (But that’s just my take.)

I think that we all have the responsibility to look at both our religion and our spirituality with a critical eye. We need to see what works and what doesn’t. What is it that brings us closer to God? What is it that provides a vehicle for us to be an instrument to bring others closer to God and to experience God in their lives? It is always a struggle; that, too, is a means of grace. Joan Chittister says that “religion is about transcendence, and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane.” (Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief, 8) Maybe that’s the point that Jesus was trying to make.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Are there things that our own society does that it views as religious ritual that are perhaps unnecessary or exclusive?
  3. What does this say about “God’s will” and how that relates to our faith?
  4. What does this say to us about wisdom?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

There is only one Love.  (Teresa of Avila, Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun, 16th century)

 

The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. (Willa Sibert Cather, American author, 1873-1947)

 

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. (G.K. Chesterton, English writer, 1874-1936)

 

 

Closing

 

Now I love thee alone. Thee alone do I follow. Thee alone do I seek. Thee alone am I ready to serve. For thou alone hast just dominion. Under thy sway I long to be. Amen.

(Saint Augustine, from An African Prayer Book, 137)

 

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