August 29, 2021
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15
I had one of those strange weeks where the same theme kept manifesting in a number of forms. It began last Sunday when I shared with you how challenged I often feel when submitting to the notion of a Christian life. It’s not the difficulty of believing in God. As I said, I have little trouble accepting the existence of a transcendent, mysterious, eternal creator God whose depths of being I cannot begin to fathom. The challenge rather is that this God exists for us as love, that this God calls us into existence from love, that this God becomes one of us to embody that love, that this God would rather die than give up that love, that this God rises in victorious love, and that this God’s Spirit is within us as abiding love. Sometimes that shift from transcendent God to personal God seems like an unbelievable and impossible kind of grace.
I was sitting with a friend and colleague who was bemoaning his daughter’s absolute refusal to participate in Confirmation class. “Oh dad,” she said, “there’s just no way I’m doing that.” It wasn’t her refusal that struck him; it was the expression of absolute dissonance with the truth claims that shaped his – and therefore in some ways – her own life. It was like he was suggesting that she speak some old and forgotten language or learn how to square dance. So my friend wondered out loud, “Does Christianity ask too much of people? Does it ask people to believe things that they no longer can?”
I wonder what you think about that. Is that the reason so many are drifting away? Do the tenants of our faith just no longer compute? My mind went to wondering what it is exactly that we are asking of people. Do I stand here and ask you to believe unbelievable things? Maybe I do to a certain extent, but I don’t think that’s the main thing. I said to my friend, “Maybe it should be more about the practice of experiencing the kind of God that Jesus shows us, rather than encouraging people to muster up a certain level of belief.” In other words, encounter is the more important thing, and belief is more of a byproduct.
I thought about these things while waiting for a cookbook to arrive in the mail. I’ve never ordered a cookbook in my life, but I figured it was time. So, when the package arrived I thought I was opening, “The Dirty Lazy Keto Cookbook.” Instead, I found a book by Phillip Cary called, “Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do.” A friend thought I would be interested and surprised me with it.
Cary’s point in the book is that much of the modern Christian message produces people who are either disinterested or anxious. And we are that way because the messaging is ultimately about ourselves and what we do, and not Christ and what he does.
This, coincidently, was also an important theme in an article pointed out to me by Caroly Gibson. The authors there were saying that too much of Christianity today is about catering to people’s “me-centered” way of viewing our lives, rather than inviting people to discover that in Christ our lives are not our own. We are brought out of ourselves in order to share in the life and ministry of the risen Jesus – not necessarily to feel like we are secure or in control.
Before I return to Philip Cary I want to say that I’m sharing all of this because I believe there’s something of the Spirit’s movement in the coming together of these related ideas, given to me by thoughtful people of faith to consider as we move together into the future of our congregational life.
So, I started with chapter 9 in Cary’s book: “Why ‘Applying it to Your Life’ is Boring: or How the Gospel is Beautiful.” He says that practical sermons are the worst kind. The “practical” ones are “all about me and my life and what I’m supposed to do to change it. They are boring because I don’t come to church to hear about myself but about Jesus Christ.” He says the gospel doesn’t really give us practical advice or a theory about how to live our lives. It gives us God in the flesh. Sermons should point us to this God, this grace, this eternal love made manifest for the likes of us, and we should let the beauty of that God shapes us much the way a beautiful piece of music, or a beautiful landscape, or beautiful night sky works within us. It’s true that nobody hears a beautiful piece of music and asks, “How shall I apply it to my life?” It’s applicable, much like the gospel, because its beauty changes us.
The thing is, if we’ve trained ourselves to seek something less – to seek instructions rather than Christ – we may not be able to see the beautiful thing before us.
I think we get an example of that in today’s gospel passage. Do you know what happens right before today’s verses? Jesus is healing people. Large crowds are flocking to him – bringing the whole gamut of human need, and when they but touch his cloak they are made well. That’s when the pharisees chime in with their questions about defilement. God in the flesh is right there before them and what they see instead is disciples who don’t wash their hands.
Maybe we’re like those pharisees just a bit. Maybe we tend to focus on the “practical” too much and we miss the miracle?
With that in mind I thought we could engage in a little prayer exercise using our first reading for today. It seems appropriate since church tradition has thought of the Song of Solomon’s love poetry to be something of an analogy for Christ’s love for the Church. So, I thought we could practice hearing it that way.
If you are willing, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains bounding over the hills… My beloved speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Give yourself time with the thought that “My Beloved” is God, and that God comes “leaping and bounding” to you.
Now focus on just these words: “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.” What does that mean to you? What is God saying to you?
Hear those words one more time: “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.” This time focus on the last two words: “Come away.” What is it that God is calling you away from? Where is it that God is taking you?”