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)

 

Proper 14B: Transcendent Bread

BreadinOven_croppedOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33

Read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage

Absalom is dead. The Kingdom is again secure and, yet, David pours out his grief. This is the anguished cry of a father who has lost his son. Absalom was known as David’s third son with Maachah, daughter of Talmai, King of Gershur. According to lore, he was David’s most beloved son. But surely he also sings out of guilt at the role he played in Absalom’s death. When he arranged the murder of Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, he consoled Joab, his partner in the crime, by saying that “the sword devours now one and now another”. Those words came back to haunt him when the prophet Nathan announced the consequence of David’s taking of Bathsheba: “the sword shall never depart from your house”. Nathan’s words have come painfully true, and David has borne ongoing responsibility for them.

David served as a kind of accomplice when his son Amnon raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Even after the rape he did nothing to punish his son. Absalom seethed at this injustice. Eventually he set a trap and killed Amnon. Then he fled, and David refused to see him until Joab and a wise woman from Tekoa worked a kind of reconciliation. Shortly after this moment of reconciliation, though, Absalom started positioning himself to supplant David as king. He won the favor of the people, ascended to the throne, and then continued his war against his father, raping his father’s concubines in full public view. David’s beloved son had turned against him.

David’s guilt comes from his role in these larger processes of violence. And yet, he did beg for a gentler handling of Absalom. What would it mean to “deal gently” with the young man? Would it mean to capture him alive? To let him go? To kill him quickly and painlessly? David’s words are open-ended, and Joab does not necessarily misinterpret them when he leads a gang of men in executing Absalom. David has a history of speaking in a code that only Joab can understand. When David wants Bathsheba’s husband killed, he sends a cryptic note to Joab. Joab knows what to do.

The story of David and Absalom (like many stories) can be looked upon as a kind of mirror to society. As this story shows, rivalry often drives humans to destroy one another, even those to which they are related, and we often bring others down with us. In fact, this family argument turned into an out and out slaughter between armies. Usually our grief and guilt linger just under the surface, festering and unnamed. Acknowledging this grief and guilt is difficult, because its exposure threatens so much of how we understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Once again, David’s power had been threatened and once again he chose to deal with it in a violent and murderous way.

The image of Absalom hanging “between heaven and earth” is interesting. Walter Brueggemann sees it as a depiction of a sort of liminal status: “Absalom is suspended between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father. He is no longer living, because he is utterly vulnerable, but he is not dead.” (Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel, 319)  It is the story of us all.  We live suspended between brokenness and wholeness, between sinfulness and the very image of God in which we were created, between who we are and who we are meant to be.  But, in the midst of it all, is the God who both judges us and saves us.  And it’s a good reminder that there are no absolute victories in this world.  We are all winners and all losers.  We are children of God but children with limitations.  Maybe loss reminds us of our deep need for God, of our deep need for true redemption and restoration.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think of David’s show of grief over Absalom? What did guilt have to do with that?
  3. What does this say about human nature and about how we treat each other?
  4. How does this speak to our win-lose culture? Is there a positive side to failure?
  5. How does this passage speak to redemption and hope?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 4: 25-5:2

Read the Lectionary Epistle Passage

The verses leading up to this passage, which are not part of the lectionary, calls the Ephesian converts to discard their old nature and don a new one. Beginning with the part that we read this week, the author of the epistle insists that we need to speak truth because we actually are all part of one another. Not speaking truth to each other is the same as not speaking the truth to ourselves, and vice versa. Throughout the passage, the author sets up contrasts: avoid destructive behaviors and do edifying ones. Discard spiritual clutter. To imitate God, only one thing is needful: kenotic love, the love that sacrifices for the good of others.

In all honesty, this passage contains exhortations that resemble moral prescriptions that are present throughout the world’s religions and cultures. But if we read it as merely a “morality check” or a sappy vision of all of us singing “Kum ba yah”, we have missed the point. This is not just a vision of good behavior. Rather, the author wants the Ephesians to make the connection between this new life in Christ and these new behaviors. This is deeper. It is about being rather than doing. Essentially, we are called to BE something different now. No longer can we dismiss our shortcomings as “only human”. Being fully human, becoming Christ-like, means entering that love of humanity itself, a love that exists in the midst of our diversity and even in the midst of our disagreements. That is the way we show our love for God. Ephesians immerses us in truthfulness and Truth. Truthfulness is necessary for pure love in Christ.

Notice that the writer doesn’t say “don’t get angry” but, rather not to sin when one is angry. In other words, don’t let it get away from you. Anger has its place. It can effect change or improvement. It can effect justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “to ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” Perhaps it gives us the reminder to deal with our anger in a loving, but truthful, way and not let it get away from us. The passage does not call for us to BE God, to be perfect; the passage calls for us to imitate God, to BE the image of God that is revealed for each of us. Maybe even conflict somehow reveals that for us. We just can’t let it change us into something that we’re not meant to be.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does this passage say to you about truthfulness and truth?
  3. What about anger? Is there such a thing as “righteous anger”?
  4. What does this have to do with discarding the old nature (or even our old views)?
  5. What does it mean for you to imitate God?

 

GOSPEL: John 6: 35, 41-51

Read the Lectionary Gospel Passage

This week’s reading begins with the final verse from last week’s reading: “I am the bread of life…” The emphasis through John’s Gospel is essentially on eternal life, but this is not merely living forever, but, rather living in connection, in the household of God the eternal. It is about sharing in God’s life. While much of John’s Gospel tends to almost sound anti-Semitic, it reflects on the relationship with God and the shedding of one’s old life. (And to be honest, this should not be read as “The Jews”; rather this was a particular group in a particular time. It would be no different than someone referring to a fundamentalist right wing notion of Christianity as “The Christians”.)

The idea of the Gospel was that everyone inherits eternal life, this sharing in God’s life. Sticking to the old rules, sticking to the old boundaries will not get us there. It is more about newness than about wrongness. It is about transcendence. Jesus challenges the people to let go of wanting a God who can give them what they need and to create space for something more. He urges them to let go of the image of God that they have created. He invites them to take on his values as the bread of life. If prayer is only focused on needs, there will be no space to be drawn to God.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta tells of how she came across a Hindu family in India that had not eaten for days. She took them a small amount of rice. She was very surprised at what happened when she did so. Very quickly the mother of the family had divided the rice into two halves. Then she took half of it to the family next door, which happened to be a Muslim family. Mother Teresa asked, “How could you have any left over? There are many of you.” The woman simply replied. “But they have not eaten for days either!” “That” says Mother, “takes greatness. Her greatness consisted in her ability to transcend her own need, a greatness that is often found in the most extraordinary places.”

In a sermon on this text, Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens says this:

The way we view the world can limit our horizons or expand them to eternity. The crowd that surrounded Jesus in our Gospel lesson in John became angry at what they perceived as arrogance, if not blasphemy, on his part. How dare he call himself the bread of life? The way they saw him–wasn’t this the kid that grew up down the street? Was he not the same one I used to have to run home when it was supper time? You know, the one who was so smart. Wasn’t this that carpenter Joseph’s son? How can he satisfy us? Do you remember that time he got lost in Jerusalem? How is he making such a claim? After all, he is one of us…

If they had seen more than the carpenter’s son, they might have heard the depth of the good news, but when we limit our world to what we know or have experienced, we can miss the vastness of God’s grace. Karl Barth wrote, “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied. (Rev. Wiley Stevens, “Living in Love”, August 10, 2003, available at http://day1.org/503-living_in_love, accessed 8 August, 2012)

But, when you think about it, bread is pretty basic, pretty ordinary. Maybe that’s why Jesus used it. After all, all it takes is a little flour, a little salt, a little water, and a little yeast. It’s just ordinary. (Although, a buttery cinnamon swirl never hurt anyone, right?) Every culture has bread in some form. People have been baking bread for 6,000 years. That’s the point. There’s nothing out of this world about it. It’s here. Flour, salt, water, and yeast—all ordinary offerings of the earth—vegetation, sea, water, and fungal microorganisms. Nothing is too big or too small for God. Eternal life is not something that is “out there” for us when we get to the end of what we know. It is here, right under our noses, the very ordinary offerings of life made sacred by the Presence of God. Here, now…right now…no waiting, no wondering, just something that requires that we step out of where we are.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Once again, what does the term “I am the Bread of Life” mean for you?
  3. What is the dfference between a “needs-based” faith and a “God-centered” faith?
  4. How does our view of “eternal life” change or affect our understanding of God?
  5. What stands in the way of our own transcendence, of our own seeking God?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share, and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it. (Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274)

Good and evil, then, cannot be a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath. “Good” is the movement in the direction of home, “evil” is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes awry. (Martin Buber, 1878-1965)

 

At the age of ninety-three, the cellist Pablo Casals explained how, for the past eighty years, he had started each day in the same manner. He went to the piano and he played two preludes and fugues of Bach: ‘It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning. . . . It is rediscovery of the world in which I have a joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being human.” (Pablo Casals)

 

Closing

 

Only this:  That I may never hunger for that which is not your bread.  Amen.

(Jan Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, 118.)