The Adventurous Lectionary – Pentecost 15 September 2, 2018.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-18, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s readings celebrate the “beauty of holiness” and join concern for the inner life with care for external behaviors. They celebrate love in its many forms – romance, justice-seeking, care for the vulnerable, and personal integrity revealed in care for the earth. They articulate a non-legalistic, sensuous spirituality grounded in feelings of wonder and gratitude. Spirituality is not flight from the earth, but loving and just immersion in creation. Nothing is unclean that flows from God’s loving creativity, nor should inflexible rule stifle faithful pleasure and joy. As I read these texts I am reminded of Alice Walker’s words from the Color Purple: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Pause, notice, touch, feel, smell, taste, listen…and bring beauty to the world.
“The voice of my beloved,” so sings the lover of Song of Songs. Song of Songs is good honeymoon reading; and also excellent for creative courting. It celebrates romance, beauty, embodiment, and – dare we say – sexuality. With W.H. Auden, we can “love God in the world of the flesh.” Incarnation is not a flight from embodiment, but an embedding in the physical world in all its wonder, beauty, and complexity. The word becomes flesh in loving relationships, raising children, writing love poems, and beginning a love affair that will last a lifetime. God loves embodiment and invites us to celebrate the beauty of the earth, including human bodies. Whether or not Mary was an eternal virgin or Jesus had a partner are unimportant and irrelevant questions. Jesus rejoiced in the wonder of the senses. The God who loves the world surely is the origin of beauty, passion, and sensuality.
The Psalm celebrates the inner and external beauty of the sovereign. A beautiful soul – committed to justice – is reflected in a lovely visage. May the ruler’s physical appearance mirror a spirit of justice, integrity, and fidelity. The beauty of holiness, of just leadership, endures when our perceptions of physical beauty fade away. An adventurous preacher might advocate for a politics and civil order of beauty in which diversity, contrast, and integrity are honored as pathways to authentic love of country.
The reading from the Epistle of James joins the inner and outer worlds as well. While it is all well and good to be an armchair theologian – enjoying the biblical texts as literature and celebrating the beauty of a well-articulated theological text – what really matters is that inspiring words take flesh in daily life. James is a practical theologian. Like Paul, the author of James celebrates God’s amazing grace. But accepting grace is the beginning of our journey of faith. Justification leads to sanctification – the making holy of our lives through acts of justice and kindness. James counsels: “Don’t just listen; act! Let your life speak! Let your values come alive in your local and global commitments.”
James also celebrates the wonders of life, including embodiment. Every good gift comes from God. The universe is a theatre of divine glory and beauty. The wonders of our cells are as amazing as the wonders of our spirits. Our bodies are intended for creativity, sensuality, and health, all reflective of God’s creativity, sensuality, and healing power. Holistic spirituality embraces the earth and the body and sees these as shrines and temples of divinity. (For more on James, see Bruce Epperly, Holistic Spirituality: Life-transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James, Energion Publications)
Religion is ultimately a matter of orthopraxy, not just orthodoxy. Many will say “Lord, Lord” in terms of theological correctness, but turn away from God’s vision of Shalom in the micro and the macro. Healthy religion turns us toward the least of these, those around us who are vulnerable, powerless, marginalized, and forgotten. Today, the scope of our orthopraxy must include “the nuisances and nobodies,” and it must extend to the non-human world – to our fellow creatures and to the ponds, lakes, oceans, woodlands, and flatlands that we have, as Pope Francis says, transformed to a garbage dump. Joined with the reading from the Psalms, James convicts any political leader or active church goer who dreams of a return to a Christian America, but fails to create infrastructures of justice, equality, and environmental care. Surely James counsel convicts every leader who puts dishonesty, bullying, and incivility about the common good. James celebrates “family values” and sees them issuing from acts that truly support the least of these – single parents, widows, persons with handicaps, and children, including refugee and immigrant children.
The reading from Mark’s Gospel continues the theme of inner and outer goodness. A healthy, God-oriented heart is revealed in faithful actions. Authentic faith is found in the impact of our inner life on our outward behavior. God is the ultimate relativist – responding personally and intimately to every life-situation. Rigid obedience to rules and conventions is useless apart from an open heart and loving acts. Doctrine and ritual are valuable as the inspiration to loving action. Legalism deadens the spirit and excludes contrasting ways of loving God. Our rituals and doctrines shape our lives; yet, their proof is found in our care for others.
Love God in the world of the flesh. Make merry, embrace with love, and let your loving care extend to vulnerable persons and the non-human world.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor, South Congregational Church, UCC, in Centerville, MA, and a professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is author of over forty five books, including “The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God Filled World,” “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians,” and three volumes of an ongoing series of short books on process theology: “Process and Ministry,” “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.” He can be reached for lectures, retreats, and seminars at email@example.com.