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Adventurous Lectionary – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 29, 2021

Adventurous Lectionary – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 29, 2021 August 20, 2021

The Adventurous Lectionary – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 29, 2021.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-18, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s readings celebrate the “beauty of holiness” and the “holiness of beauty” as they join concern for the inner life with care for external behaviors. The join appreciation with action and romance with reformation. Love has many dimensions, all interdependent despite different foci – romance, justice-seeking, care for the vulnerable, and personal integrity revealed in care for the earth and walking the talk in everyday life. These scriptures 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. Ethics and social transformation are about adding to the beauty of experience and enabling people to experience their authentic vocations.

“The voice of my beloved,” so sings the lover of Song of Songs. Song of Songs is good honeymoon reading and 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.” Words of love matter. In this case, the words of lovers, although we can’t neglect appropriate loving words to children and grandchildren, colleagues, congregants, and students. Words of appreciation, affirmation, and affection transforms life. Plato once said a philosopher without love is dead. The same applies to pastors, or as the saying goes, they don’t care what you know till they know that you care.

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. Government can be, as the Psalmist asserts, a force for good adding to the beauty of experience and unlocking hidden gifts. Justice is about singing, playing, dancing, creating, loving – all of us having the opportunity to be fully alive.

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. Be doers of the word. Let your life speak and your actions heal. 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. All are invited to the front row of God’s banquet table.

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.

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Bruce Epperly is a “retired” pastor and active teacher and author of over sixty books, including PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD; and PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS.


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