Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 02 2018, 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

The readings for today are so diverse in their tone—and assembled together somewhat accidentally—that it seems strange to suggest that they are all, fundamentally, talking about the same thing. Yet I think they are. Three years ago, I got to them by starting with the Song of Songs, but, lovely though that passage is, I want to start this year with the epistle of James; because the more restrained language of this letter can mean that we miss just how extraordinary are the claims being staked.

First, James gives us a remarkable and complex picture of the nature of God—the Father of lights who gives birth to us as a mother bears a child, the one perfect giver from whom all gifts and all goodness come, in whose nature there can never be inconsistency or falling from love—a description which sums up in two sentences what would later be unpacked at greater length by the medieval theologian Julian of Norwich, part of whose purpose was to disprove the idea that there can be wrath in God, or that God’s meaning can ever be other than love. And in those same two sentences, James gives us a picture of ourselves transformed, recreated as if newly born, and not simply for ourselves, but so that we can be the place where the transformation of the whole cosmos may begin.

James is sometimes caricatured as presenting a simplistic sort of “works righteousness,” but it’s clear enough from the text that he’s thinking of something far more complex than just good advice about doing good—rather, when we live into those true purposes of God, into an active care for the vulnerable which is—and this is important, as anyone working mindfully for justice will know—accompanied by restraint, by careful listening, by the decentring of self, and the willingness to recognize, and strive to eliminate, the evils of this world that take root in us—when we do these things, we are making ourselves more and more the channels of that divine nature. Each time we are able to give, of our material resources, of our selves, thoughtfully, carefully, with regard to the real needs of others, we are part of the life of the perfect giver whose final word is always love. We are made new; we are made the inbreaking hope of the reconciliation of all things.

And this is what Jesus is criticizing in the behaviour of the Pharisees, as he describes it. Something which is meant to be a living, dynamic process of transformation 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 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 soul 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 demands; it is a static, self-regarding, unproductive thing; as James says, they glance at themselves in a mirror, but don’t stand still long enough for real self-examination, and so nothing changes, nothing is transformed, nothing lives.

What must change first, for us, is the heart, the will, the direction of desire; and from that, a transformed way of living, an intention towards goodness and healing for the whole broken world. In a world of hatred and exclusion, a world in which racism and prejudice seem to be surging back both in violent fringe groups and in public policy, a city in the grip of an overdose crisis, a crisis in housing, rising levels of poverty and hunger and gun violence, in a world in which politicians seem more and more sure that power is the only truth, in a culture which encourages anger and dehumanization at every level—in such a time as this, we must be the community of transformation. Quick to listen to the voices which power would suppress; speaking truth to power with care and deliberation, knowing that our words must be rooted in the creating Word that breathed over the waters; actively caring for the vulnerable in practical ways, and ensuring that all our religious disciplines work in the service of inclusion and justice. We must be the community in the process of our own transformation, the community which witnesses to the transformation God desires for all creation.

Rise up, my love, my fair one. Rise up, in your brokenness and in your truth, no matter who tries to prevent you. For the voice of infinite love is calling.

The Song of Songs is one of the most unexpected books in Scripture, and it was not, I think we can be sure, meant to be about God in the first instance; but 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, and like today’s psalm it was probably written for some kind of public marriage ritual; 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 about the healing of our hearts, of our desire, of which Jesus speaks.

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. Our human loves are also a 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. 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 in that love there is also pain, the pain which the incarnate Word chose to carry. 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. There is no defect, no turning, in God’s love, but only a measure of our own limit. God is the always patient lover, who calls us in every possible way to rise up into the light of new life, the flowering spring, the birdsong and ripening fruit which are meant for the joy of all, calling us 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 so transformed, made so new, that we can be that love, that gift, in the world. That we may strive, through protest and service and work and art, to make it possible for this sorry world to experience some small part of the joy upon which the cosmos is built, some hint of the great rebirth of all things.

The promise is great and astonishing. The daily work itself, as I think you all know, is mostly small and sometimes tedious, and always slow, and often seems pointless. It is tempting to fall back on the consolations of rules and rituals and self-regard, to hope in the world’s definitions of success. It is probably even more tempting to be impatient, to be angry, when there seems to be a great deal to be rightly impatient and angry about. But our anger, as James tells us, reasonable though it may sometimes be, does not produce God’s righteousness. That combination of restraint, calm listening, relentless self-examination, and patient work at the sharp edges of the world, which both the epistle and the gospel demand of us, is fiercely hard, and we will none of us achieve it often. But underlying it all is love, that vision of beauty, the springtime of the earth, the voice of the turtledove. Rise up, and come.