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Sermon for Proper 17 Year B First Option 9-2-18

Proper 17B 2018

September 2, 2002

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In the name of our one living God who creates abundantly, loves extravagantly, and sustains eternally: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

          Week in and week out the preacher is called to preach on the lectionary lessons.  The tricky part is to find a unifying theme that would tie together lessons that were composed individually over hundreds of years by different cultures in various circumstances.  Sometimes it’s a snap.  Other times I am tempted to Google to see who was on the committee that picked the Sunday readings! This was one of those weeks but prayer and patience usually see me through.

          I learned that this Sunday’s lectionary selection is the only week in all three lectionary years that a reading from the Song of Songs was chosen. That in itself warrants attention.  When I have heard sermons on today’s text they have preached by treating the lesson allegorically – in one case I recall as pointing to the love between Jesus and the Church. Now that is a stretch!  That is what my homiletics professor in seminary would call “Trampoline Preaching” – jumping so hard on a text so that you can bounce as far away from it as possible!

          Let’s face it – it is about two lovers- a man and a woman who long for one another both spiritually and physically.  If you read the whole Song of Solomon, you will immediately note that it is set in and celebrates nature. It speaks of the beauty and bounty of God’s Creation and celebrates our human existence as part of that Creation. Perhaps one of the lessons we can pull out from this text is that we humans - if we are to live with integrity - must not only acknowledge our oneness with nature but also our dependence on it.  We must celebrate with thanks both our Earthly home and our human sexuality.

          Truth be told, our very existence is the result od earthly love, passion and desire.  All of us are born of an act of nature and at our end we return to the earth when we die – another natural act.

          Today’s lesson needs also to be seen in light of our degradation of the earth as we pollute the air and water we depend upon.  It challenges us to see how we distort and abuse our human sexuality. It reminds that we are part of and dependent upon those very gifts of the natural world that we are greedily destroying.  Our power over our natural world has its limits. When we ignore and exceed these limits we destroy the very things that make our lives possible.  Do you remember the poisoning of the water supply in Detroit?  That poisoned our children as they drank from the water fountains at school!  That is only a minor example.

          Psalm 15 is one of my favorites. It teaches us how to live in God’s House.  It beckons us to live with respect and honesty in our relations with one another. It condemns what we call “pay to play” politics and heaping contempt upon others as a means of political or financial gain. Again, this has resonance in the world we live in today.  We are all called to live in God’s tent.  Indeed, there is room for all – but only if we accept that invitation with humility and gratitude.  Too often we try to make God’s tent ours alone and shut out others so that we may have more.

          Our Epistle from the short Letter of James is basically an introduction to and summation of the chapters that follow it. It calls for patience and self-restraint in dealing with one another.  Intemperate speech and stirring up anger within the community do not further God’s purposes. This another admonition that has resonance today! Rather, the author advises his readers to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”  What good advice for our times!  One’s ability to stir up confusion, doubt, fear, anger – indeed even hatred and violence- has been amplified a thousand fold by our new technology and the world-wide web.

          James also reminds us of another great biblical insight – true love for our Creator, for the world we have been given and for our very being is empty unless we translate that into action! “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

          If we want to do an inventory about where we are under this standard – whether as a person, a community, a business, or a nation – look at the balance sheet – both the income side and the expenditure side!  Look also at whom we embrace and invite into community with us.  Maybe – and perhaps most especially – look at the level of contentment and joy.

          In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is asked a seemingly innocent question but he responds forcefully and with anger.  Why?  I think it is because he knows it is not an honest question but one meant by the Pharisees to “put him in his place”.  While it is good sanitation to wash before eating not everyone has the means and resources to do ules.so.  For the Pharisees, this was a religious tradition from the Temple rules that they adopted for daily life.

          Tradition is good but like everything it can be abused.  Tradition can be called to justify restraining, oppressing or demeaning others.  I remember hearing the phrase – “the normative power of the actual” meaning that which is is right!  That is an abuse of tradition.  If anyone has any doubts about this, just ask women, people of color, the LGBT community, people who come from different places and cultures.  Traditions can indeed be used to oppress and constrain others.

          I was thinking about this sermon as I watched the Burial Office for Sen. John McCain this morning at the National Cathedral in Washington. Did any one here also watch it? It brought back for me the many funerals I officiated at over the years. It brought back memories of the Army and of being in Vietnam.  It was a wonderful dignified service with great music and liturgy.  There is a reason I am an Episcopalian!

          But something seemed “off”, something seemed “missing”’ something seemed “not quite right”. Watching the politicians, celebrities and newscasters pouring out of the Cathedral after the service, it suddenly struck me. Where were the men with whom he was imprisoned for years?  Where were their families?  Where were their widows and orphans?  Everyone seemed powerful, affluent and privileged.  Tradition can indeed be used to paper over our neglect for our neighbor.