Monday, August 10, 2009

Proper 17 Year B

Proper 17 Year
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2,7-10


Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9; Psalm 15

James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

Although later given powerful spiritual and religious interpretations, the Song of Solomon is a lyrical poem about human love. She compares her lover to a "gazelle or a young stag." She finds him sneaking looks at her through a lattice. He speaks and invites her to join him. "For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flower appears on the earth, the time of singing has come...."

This psalm is unique in several ways: it is a love song written for a royal wedding and the poet celebrates his own skill. These excerpted verses acknowledge the reign of God whose throne is "forgiveness" and who loves justice and hates evil. This is the God who anointed the King who is to be wed this day.


Set in the from of the valedictory address by Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy offers its own version of the history of God's rescue of Israel from slavery and establishment in its own land and the gift of the Law. The writer admonishes that no one should add or take away from his version. He also requires observance of his admonitions because this tradition has given Israel an international reputation as a "great nation," a "wise and discerning people," and because it is "just." Remember it yourself and teach it to your children.

The psalmist delineates the traits of the person who will "sojourn in the Lord's tent" and "dwell in Your holy mountain" as the person who does justice, speaks truth, does not slander, does not malign neighbors or family, keeps her word. The person "who does all these things will never stumble."

The collection of aphorisms, sayings and moralizing admonitions attributed to James rarely mentions Christ nor any aspect of the gospel. The writer knows an unmovable "Father of lights" who has given "us birth by the word of truth" to be exemplars. He then provides a rather expected conventional list of valuable attributes-- careful to speak, slow to anger, avoid "rank wickedness...." But then he offers a practical, necessary balance to those who make religion abstract or vague or sentimental. He insists: "be doers of the word and not merely hearers only." He then defines "pure religion" with a very specific, practical task: "care for orphans and widows in their distress." He concludes, "keep.. untainted by the world."

After following John's lengthy and pivotal meditation prompted by the feeding of 5,000 for the past four Sundays on the meanings of Christ as the generous conduit of God's superabundance, we return to Mark's leaner narrative which is just as powerful in its own ways. In Mark's narrative, the spectacle of Jesus feeding 5,000 people in one seating is followed immediately by confrontation. "The Pharisees and scribes" now take Jesus much more seriously and begin to scrutinize him and his followers more closely. The Pharisees notice that his disciples did not wash their hands before eating. "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders...?" Jesus snaps. (After all, he has just fed 5,000 people and the leftovers are spilling out of every available basket all over the place and the religious leaders focus on 'tradition'!) Isaiah warned about hypocrites like you, Jesus says curtly. Then Jesus delivers the coup de gras: "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." In the dead silence that follows, Jesus turns from his critics and speaks to the huge crowd, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile." "All evil comes from within, and they defile a person."

Given the dicey path not to be or to be included in the canon, the Song of Solomon and the Letter of James raise the questions: What makes words 'religious'; What makes behavior 'religious'?

Words are in and of themselves neutral. What gives them power, sometimes devastating and other times wonderful power, rely on three responsibile people: the emotions, intentions, expected outcome of the person who spoke/wrote them; the motives and intentions of the person(s) who interpret them; the reactions/actions that result by the person who hears/reads them. Therefore,
any language can be religious, including the most secular novel, movie or poetry (as is the case with the Song of Solomon). Conversely, language purporting to be religious can be too easily perverted. (Consider just the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, 9/11.) If the author/speaker (preacher) reads/hears the canonical words and interprets them in a spirit of fairness, respect, justice, carefulness and humility at the task of reading/interpreting God's Word she also bears some responsibility for the understanding and the actions/reactions her words produce. Those who hear, intrepret and react bear respnsibility for their decisions, too. Likewise, those who promulgate/incite hatred, fear, confusion also bear responsibility. The words "that come [out of the mouth] are what defile," Jesus said.

The same is true of behavior. At some point, all the talk eventually must stop and action must begin. Religious action is obsessed with the exact same concerns as religious language-- care, justice, fairness, protection of the vulerable, respect. Writing admiringly of the
Letter of James, Jean-Luc Nancy insists "What James, for his part, would have us understand is that faith is its own work. It is in works, it makes them , and the works make it." (Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, p.52)

We know from sad experience that language that purports to be religious can be used as cover for indifference, self-satisifaction, cruelty or even violence to others. Now we are reminded that the plainest everyday language and behavior can fulfill the highest biblical aspirations. "The person who does all these things -- does justice, speaks truth, does not slander nor malign family or neighbors, keeps her word--wlll never stumble," the psalmist tells us.