The Adventurous Lectionary: The 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Lectionary Reflections for September 2, 1012

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-7; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Faith is a matter of head, heart, and hands.  Faith without works is useless, so says the author of the Epistle of James.  Theology that can’t be practiced is irrelevant – a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.  Action without reflection or divorced from values and vision is ultimately aimless and destruction, and certainly self-serving.  Holistic theology embraces the wisdom of embodiment and integrates it with the guidance of spirit and reason.

I have often suggested that couples take a copy the Song of Solomon on their honeymoon.  This is embodied, intimate, and romantic poetry at its best. It is also incarnational theology.  There is nothing ethereal here, nor is this merely a “spiritual” metaphor for the relationship of God and the church, as some early church leaders asserted.  This is about the intimacy of a couple, falling in love, and wanting to be with one another.  Song of Solomon is kataphatic or embodied theology at its best: we can find meaning and wholeness in the realities of touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell.  While God isn’t mentioned directly in this passage, the Holy One is present in the story as the giver of life, love, romance, sexuality, and relationship.  God loves bodies and romance and the color purple and all things that unite and inspire.

While we can’t embrace every desire uncritically, the holy one is present in our desires.  God is, as Whitehead asserts, the Eros of the Universe, the lure toward enjoyment, wonder, beauty, intensity, appreciation, and intimacy.  Our own erotic visions, whether aimed at ideas, social change, or loving relatedness have their origins in God’s own energy of love and creativity.

Although the lectionary reading omits the more earthly parts of Psalm 45 in favor of focusing on God’s justice and blessing of those who follow God’s path, the full Psalm speaks of a partner’s – and perhaps a community’s – adoration of the king.  External beauty is intended to reflect inner beauty.  Physical attractiveness is intended to mirror inner harmony and righteousness.  As we gear up for the presidential and local political campaigns, this Psalm is a reminder that justice and righteousness and a certain beauty of character are essential to political leadership.  Can we have a beautiful government, doing just and righteous things?  Can we find a path beyond ugliness in electing our officials?  If God is beautiful, as Patricia Adams Farmer suggests in her book Embracing a Beautiful God, then beauty and its cultivation should be an essential element in our politics, congregational decision-making, worship, and mission.

James grounds our behavior in the generosity of God.  God is the everlasting, always generous, never failing source of all good gifts.  In the spirit of Luther, God’s generosity flows through us – or ought to flow through us – in relationship to our neighbor and fellow companion in the way of Jesus. Divine grace fills us, enabling us to be a wellspring of life-giving love to others.  James provides a brief guide to healthy communication – listen well, speak carefully, and share you anger in ways that join not separate.  James recognizes that anger is part of life and is a reflection of the basic desire for self-affirmation, nurture, and protection; but anger need not be expressed in ways that strain relationships or community life.  James is counseling a certain type of anger management: expression of anger seldom diffuses tension but actually leads to greater anger and hurt.  While we are not counseled to deny our feelings, we are to keep guard about how we discharge them.  Does sharing how we feel really improve a community or relationship’s health and solidarity?   Do outbursts of righteous indignation, unaware of context or personality, upbuild relationships and congregational life? Sadly, even in the church, unguarded expressions of anger can destroy communities, relationships, and pastoral authority and respect.

They key issue is “how.”  Everything we do, even our disagreements, should be aimed at supporting the community’s health and well-being.  Simply sharing how we feel can be an exercise in narcissism or self-interest that benefits no one, including the one who shares.

Speaking the truth in love is essential – but the emphasis is on “love.”  Truthful emotional expression without consideration for others’ feelings is dangerous to a community’s cohesion and mission.  Many people who are theological relativists are emotional absolutists, assuming that their feelings are always an accurate barometer of reality and need to be shared regardless of consequences.  Non-doing and non-speaking can be as important as acting and speaking in faith joined with action.

Faith involves both action and abstention.  Be doers of the word.  Don’t just spout platitudes about justice, global climate change, care for the vulnerable, or the importance of diversity!  Put your actions where your words are.  Healthy, God-inspired religion involves caring for the vulnerable and living by a different standard (being “unstained) from the culture.  Followers of Jesus’ way should have a critical edge in relationship to the larger culture in terms of our values, lifestyle, and political commitments.    A perceptive preacher can invite her or his congregants to ponder the ways that the church should differ from society and ways individual Christians can live by different value systems in their businesses, professional lives, personal relationships, community involvement, and political perspectives.  While James is not either a conservative or liberal, he would affirm the sentiment of the bumper sticker that proclaims, “If you love Jesus, seek justice.  Any fool can honk!”

Mark narrates an encounter of Jesus with certain Pharisees in which the Pharisees point out that the disciples ate their meal without a prior ritual washing.  Jesus responds by asserting that following God’s law is first a matter of spirit, first, and then a matter of action.  External behaviors – following or neglecting a ritual action – are no proof of our inner moral life.  Our inner values, the habits of the heart, are the primary locus of spirituality.

Mark’s Jesus believes, like James, that behavior is important.  Jesus’ own behavior – his willingness to welcome outcasts, commitment to healing, embrace of the stranger – is central to his ministry.  But, this behavior reflects an inner spaciousness and experience of the breadth of divine love.  The inner and outer journeys are essential.  Social transformation involves behavior and changed lifestyles, but it also involves cultivating the inner life – attitudes, responses to otherness, patience, forgiveness, humility, love, perseverance, and so forth.  Action and contemplation are essential to spiritual life, healthy relationships, and social concern.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He is currently Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

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