Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, August 30 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Song of Songs 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
One rarely has an opportunity to preach on the Song of Songs—it hardly appears at all in the lectionary, and it is one of those books which the church has sometimes had trouble knowing what to do with. The Bible contains pretty much every possible genre, but the Song of Songs is one of the most unexpected—here, in the middle of collections of improving sayings, in between the early history of Israel and the fierce conviction of the prophets, is a lovely, compelling, image-rich piece of erotic poetry; though the excerpt we heard today, really the only part ever much read in church, is one of the more chaste passages. It is hard to be sure how this even got into scripture, except perhaps through a wise intuition that something so beautiful must somehow have to do with God.
It was not, I think we can be sure, meant to be about God in the first instance. We can’t, though, easily call it secular poetry either. It was probably composed, despite its private and intimate tone, for public ritual performance of some kind, perhaps a wedding, we don’t really know—so it was probably incorporated into the ritual life of the community. And from fairly early on, it came to be read with a double lens. There is no denying that it is about human love, human romantic and erotic love, that it is filled with images of the body of the beloved as ripe fruit and spices, lilies and dripping myrrh, images of human passion and desire. “My beloved is mine and I am my beloved’s … I am faint with love.” But it has also been read, for many centuries now, and without taking away from its nature, as a song about the relationship of the human person with God. And it is right that these two things are never entirely separated in our reading—for they are not entirely separate things.
For if God is all love, the source from which love flows, then our human loves, in their flawed and struggling way, are at their best a reflection of God’s very nature, the interflowing life of love that is the Trinity. And our human loves are also our means of learning what it is to love and to be loved, and so learning what God is, what is means to live the life of God. And it is right to use the images of desire and consummation, of passion thwarted and fulfilled, of that aching beauty and longing. It is the language of the mystics, the intimate encounter with God in the darkness, the sweetness, the mutual surrender of self.
The prophets use this language too—and they speak of God as the lover spurned and abandoned, God longing for the return of his wandering beloved. Imagine it, that God is waiting for each one of us as a lover waits, aching, hoping, always loving. “I have written your name on the palm of my hand, you are mine,” says the God of Isaiah, like the lover in the song who says, “Set me as a seal upon your arm, a seal upon your heart, for love is stronger than death.” They echo each other as all our loves, human and divine, sound about each other in our lives, and after our lives in this world end. This is how God loves us. God’s heart is broken in love for each and every one of us, as our hearts are broken here; but God’s love doesn’t cease or fail, persists through all our betrayals and failures, always takes us back.
The Song of Songs includes passages of loss, of bereavement, of seeking without finding, and these things too are part not only of our human loves—which of course they very much are, and there is in love much sorrow—but also of our spiritual experience. We do feel sometimes alone, abandoned, seeking in the streets of the city for the one for whom our souls are longing, as does the lover in the Song. But the letter of James reminds us, as the prophets remind us, that this is no defect in God’s love, but only a measure of our own limit. God is the always patient lover, the one in whom there is no shadow of turning, but always the love that turns to us, that calls us in every possible way to rise up into the light of new life, through every bit of goodness or loveliness or kindness that we touch. God’s desire for us stretches through creation. And as we try to live within that love, we try as well to be that love, that gift, in the world. We must try, in some sense, to use the knowledge of our human loves so that we may fall in love with the world—bring to the world that same commitment, care, patience, and delight which we may know, in some small part, in our individual loves.
And, despite the difference in tone, it’s really the same idea which underlies Jesus’s denunciations in today’s Gospel. Something which is meant to be life has become a sterile set of rules, something which is meant to be a relationship has become a system of meaningless obligations. The precisely correct washing of hands and pots has become more important than who is welcome at the table, who has food and community, and who does not; in fact, it has become, at least at times, a way of excluding people from food and community.
There is nothing inherently wrong with religious disciplines;in fact, there is much that is good, but only insofar as they serve their intended purpose, which is the training of the heart for love. The purity code has become, for those Jesus is addressing, an end in itself, and the only relationship they are really having is with their own personal sense of piety. There is no movement in this, none of the self-giving, the self-emptying, which love, both human and divine, demands; it is a static, self-regarding, unproductive thing; as James says, they look at themselves in a mirror, and nothing changes. They are too busy watching themselves being holy to pay attention to the messy, difficult, unclean world around them; but only in that kind of attention, that turn away from the mirror, from the self and its diligent practices, can the work of love begin.
It is all too easy for us to become those Pharisees. The moments of ecstatic surrender, of the springtime of joy and intimacy, are necessarily fleeting; we are too weak and human to bear this much love for long. So we must build structures and practices. Our liturgies, our personal prayer and meditation, our ethical choices, all the things we do to try to be mindful, to try to live out the love we have known, to share that love with others. All of these are good things. But they should not become the rigid, final things, the things which allow us to watch ourselves being pious in a mirror and nod at ourselves in approval.
Instead, we must be always trying to turn away from that mirror, and to look towards the law which is not a code of rules but love itself, which is the face of the beloved. Love as we find it in relationships with those around us, love as we find it in the beautiful and needy world, the trees and vines and rivers, the small singing birds, the melting icecaps we try to protect, in the people we try to feed and tend and care for as we can, love as we find it in art and literature and music, as we find it in our prayer and in our silence, in each moment of attention and devotion. For it is all one love finally, and that love is the general dance which is the very life of God.
And we rise up at that voice, at that calling. Out of our sleep of despair, lost hope, lost love, out of our sleep of pain, or the paralysis of the soul which would try to protect us from pain, out of impossibility and uncertainty, of exhaustion and indifference, out of our doubt and our depression and all the damage which the powers of the world have done and may do. We rise up. Failing and frozen and confused, trying to listen, almost always getting it wrong, still we rise.
For love, and love only, called us into being, and love calls, is always calling us, even now.