Sept. 2, 2018
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I told you about Debie Thomas last week. She blogs on the lectionary passages, and so far I have to say I haven’t read a thing by her that’s failed to leave me at least little better off than I was before. This week she talks about growing up in India in a church in which adornment was not allowed. No one in the church wore engagement rings or wedding bands. Women were not allowed to wear earrings, bracelets, necklaces, jewelry of any kind. Even first-time visitors, totally ignorant of the rule, could be denied communion if they broke it. The reason, she was told, was that as children of God they didn’t need adornment. They were clothed with righteousness. They stored up treasures in heaven, not on their bodies. Material distractions would only hold them back spiritually.
As a child, however, she had the opposite experience. Why does God care more about my outward appearance than my inward? Why is it so important to God that I not get my ears pierced on my 12th birthday along with all my other friends? Why did Jesus want me to feel excluded and weird? The prohibition didn’t make her feel more spiritual; it made her feel resentful.
Later she learned the history behind the prohibition. It’s actually pretty compelling. “Apparently, when my great-grandparents had been newlyweds, a large-scale charismatic revival had swept through South India, winning many converts from the ornate mainline churches of my forebears. Many young adults had embraced the simple faith the revivalists encouraged in those days, and chosen — often at great personal and social cost — to change their lifestyles for the sake of the Gospel. One of the lifestyle changes centered around jewelry. At a time when gold meant social capital in India, when even Christian families judged each other’s worth by the weight of the jewelry their women wore, when girls whose fathers couldn’t produce enough jewelry for their dowries had to remain unmarried, the decision to forsake “ornaments” in the name of Jesus was a radical one. It spoke powerfully to the equalizing power of the Gospel. No longer would my great-grandparents and their peers participate in the snobbery of their time and place; instead, they would live counter-culturally and practice what Jesus preached — even if it meant losing their social standing and family honor. No matter what the cost, they would embrace humility, simplicity, and equality as testimonies of Christ’s non-discriminating love.”
So, at its root the rule against jewelry was a noble one. It was a resistance to false classifications and artificial social hierarchies, and it was a witness to the indiscriminate and freeing love of Christ. The problem was that as the world changed the Church didn’t. A noble practice turned into a rigid law. What began as a radical welcome and openness turned into a tool of exclusion and self-righteousness.
Thomas draws a parallel to what’s happening with the Pharisees in today’s gospel passage. The Pharisees began with good intentions. They were there to preserve the faith amidst a culture of competing practices and identities. It was their job to help keep the faith pure and vibrant amidst a backdrop of Roman occupation and colonization. They were there to preserve their heritage and traditions, but they ended up making the same mistake that the church in India did: they ended up codifying the sacred, turning something faithful and dynamic into something rigid and manageable.
The prominent preaching professor, Thomas Long, reflecting on this same passage talks about a visiting preacher’s visit to his campus on their annual “Religious emphasis week.” The preacher, assuming he was speaking to a bunch of fundamentalists with humanly contrived idolatries about the bible, finished reading a quote from scripture, closed the book and threw it out the open window. “There goes your God,” he said to a classroom of astonished students. Long’s suggestion isn’t so much that the issue for Jesus is the pitting of human tradition against divine truth. After all, we claim lots of traditions that we believe tie us to God’s truth in powerful ways. The issue according to Long is when we use moral posturing, appealing to our traditions, as a way of sidestepping God’s will. The bible flinging preacher was no doubt disgusted by the ways in which the bible had been used in just such a deceptive way. We’ll quote it to show that we’re holy when what we’re about has little to do with the amazing grace of the God to whom it points. This, he believes, is akin to the Pharisees’ sin. Their keeping of the law has lost its connection to their God of love and to love for the people of their God.
So, there’s moral posturing here. There’s codifying the sacred. There’s a lapse in integrity, a gap between heart-felt faith and the behaviors associated with such faith. Have you ever met anyone who knows the bible better than they seem to know God? Or someone who is so sure of God’s ways and God’s will that they no longer have much of a need for God? These people are dangerous when they are given power because they have the capacity to misguide everybody else. I think that’s what’s going on and that’s what’s got Jesus so upset. So, Jesus offers a different perspective on the God of our traditions. He offers one that is focused on the whole person, a head, heart, and soul faith that in fellowship with God lives out and makes sense of God’s will.
Our scriptures for the last few weeks have been leading us to think about the kind of God we have and the kind of relationship we’re meant to have with that God. Here again I think we’re asked to do the same. What kind of God do we imagine when we imagine God? What kind of God do we pray to? What are the characteristics that shape our orientation to God? Another sin the Pharisees may have fallen into is a failure of imagination.
That’s why I love that we’re also given this passage from the Song of Solomon this morning. Have you ever read it? It’s a book like none other in the bible: 8 chapters of sensual poetry between lovers. Couples often select passages from it at weddings, and I have to say that there are parts of it that I would be too embarrassed to read out loud to a congregation. But, today’s is fine. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
These days, apart from weddings, the Song of Solomon is rarely read. People wonder why it’s even in the bible. But, that wasn’t always the case. Here’s what Harvard professor, Stephanie Pulsell, has to say about it. “In its current state of neglect, it is difficult to remember that the Song of Songs was once viewed as a key capable of unlocking the whole of scripture. Readers found in its pages a garden in which one might meet God walking in the cool of the day, a pool of meaning in which one might swim and swim and never sound the bottom, a window through which one might see the glory of God. This book of love poetry, in which no body part is left uncelebrated, no fragrance or taste undescribed, was once a devotional text par excellence. This book, which nowhere mentions God, once functioned as a cherished path to profound intimacy with God.”
My Episcopal colleague who has recently been joining us at lectionary group commented the the prescribed collect, or prayer that concludes the gathering portion of their service and transitions them into the proclamation of the Word, draws from today’s scriptures and asks God for the gift of “true religion.” Though true religion may be hard to define, it still strikes me as a good prayer. For religion to be “true” in a sense that seems true to Jesus it must at its heart lead to profound intimacy with God. What good are all the Pharisees’ rules and traditions if they don’t facilitate such intimacy? What good are we doing here if we aren’t seeking the same?
So, I have a challenge for you all. Take 20 minutes to read the Song of Solomon before the night is over. You’ll find it right before the big book of Isaiah. As you read it, think of it as a key to all of scripture, as a pool of intimacy for you to swim in, and as you come to those words, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” hear them as God’s own words to you. Give it a try and see what happens to you.