The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (9-2-2012)—Proper 17—Year B; The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today, we have one of the most gorgeous passages ever in Song of Solomon.
The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
It’s an old, old, old Israelite love poem between two people head over heels in love. Read the whole book—it’s steamy. One wonders how it ever got in the Bible, except for the fact that from the earliest of times, this was interpreted as God pining for God’s beloved people. Can we dare to imagine God leaping and bounding over mountains and hills, peeking through the lattice to catch a glimpse of us? Can we dare to imagine God calling us, “my love” and begging us to come away and dwell in this lush space overflowing with abundant life? This is God as pure passion yearning for us, throwing all decorum to the winds.
Contrast this with what we hear in Mark’s gospel. There we get the Pharisees and the scribes pinning Jesus’ ears back for the behavior of his disciples, who, apparently, also lacked decorum. It seems that the Pharisees and scribes noticed that Jesus’ disciples weren’t washing their hands before they ate. Have you ever done that? Eaten without washing your hands??? Oh, the scandal! This wasn’t just a matter of hygiene for the Pharisees and scribes, this was a matter of tradition—“of doing things decently and in order,” as St. Paul liked to say. I might note that Episcopalians have turned “doing things decently and in order” into an art form.
So, it seems that the Pharisees and scribes had this tradition of washing their hands before they ate, washing things from the market, and washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. Not sure about non-bronze kettles, but traditions aren’t always logical. In fact, traditions tap something deep, deep in our psyche, something deep in our hearts. Traditions tap into our deepest feelings; they make us feel secure. Change traditions, and people want to stone you. Just try to leave mashed potatoes and water for Santa Claus, instead of milk and cookies and see what happens.
Traditions are about our heritage; they’re about knowing who we are and where we come from. It is our tradition to gather each week and share bread and wine—and we do it by following a tradition that is 2,000 years old. Traditions aren’t necessarily bad. They help us locate our place, especially in a world that is changing at light speed. In many ways, I am a traditionalist—I don’t much like change, just ask my husband; I like “to do things decently and in order”—it’s how I find stillness in a world that is always moving. Traditions have helped me to shape my life in a holy way.
But here’s the rub. We can get so attached to the tradition, that we lose sight of the holy impulse that established the tradition in the first place. We can put so much weight on the tradition, that we crush people who just can’t follow it, who just can’t get with the program. For instance, we could berate people who don’t come to worship on Sunday, never making allowance for the fact that maybe they don’t come to worship because they have to work on Sunday, or it’s the only time all week long when they can rest. We can lose the forest for the trees. We can get so attached to our traditions that we feel good and secure, maybe even smug and righteous—we’re doing everything right, but, but our hearts have grown cool. In all of our keeping the traditions to perfection, we have lost that first-love feeling, that feeling of being passionately, head-over-heels-in-love with God. You see, the thing about passion is that it’s rarely containable. It spills over in all kinds of ways, and when it does, it is rarely “done decently and in order.”
We can so easily teach our human precepts as doctrines. We can so easily abandon the commandment of God—which is so simple—love God, love your neighbor as if your neighbor were a part of your very self—we can so easily abandon this great commandment and hold to our human tradition.
Why do we do that?
Maybe because love is a much harder road to follow than adherence to what is expected. Love will often beg the question, ask for an exception, push us into new and unchartered territory where tradition has not yet had the chance to be established. Oh, it’s so unsettling.
And there’s also a dark side to tradition. The masquerading tradition. The tradition that can mask the most unholy of motivations and behaviors—Jesus lists just a few: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Tradition can mask these darker aspects of our beings—it, and we, look oh so good on the outside, but on the inside, something is rotting.
And none of this would be all that important if it weren’t for the fact that this is the very conversation the Church, Church with a capital “C”, is in at this point in our history. This is the heart of the matter.
What traditions are good and holy that we must retain or we will lose the heart and soul of who we are?
What traditions can be modified so that they can once again orient us to the holy?
And what traditions have actually gotten in the way of our loving God and loving our neighbor and loving ourselves as passionately as God wants us to love?
This tradition stuff is important because it’s how we as human beings orient our life to that which is good and holy and lifegiving. Traditions, like most everything else, can cease to bring us life, and when they do, we need to give them a good burial and await the resurrection of some new way that will once again awaken our hearts.
But how will we know what needs to stay the same, what needs to change, and what needs to be thrown overboard?
We can tease out a few principles of discernment from our lessons today. First, from the Letter of James, if the tradition is only engaging our head—if we are “hearers of the word” only—and it’s not pushing us to action—if we’re not “doing the word”—then we’re off-track. If we are not engaged with others, especially “the orphans and widows” and all those who live at the margins, if we’re not engaged with these who mirror Christ to us, who remind us who we are in our core, then we’re going in the wrong direction. If our traditions are fitting too comfortably with the world, then they are probably not reflecting the radical ways of love lived out by our Lord. If we are numb to the passionate love that God has for us and for all the world, if we are numb to that Song of Solomon passion, we can be pretty sure that we have set our sights far too low, settling for human tradition alone and forsaking the greater love that God yearns to make flesh in our lives.
Please hear me, I am not saying that we need to ditch all of our traditions—my goodness, I would be lost, lost, without them! But I do believe that we are in a difficult time, a time when we need to rethink everything that we are doing, both in the church and across our lives, and hold it up to the standard of love of which Jesus speaks. Does this tradition help us grow in that love, or not? And then we have to be willing to modify, or even let go of, those traditions that hinder that love, and reach for, or even give birth to, those traditions that will draw us more deeply toward that love.
This is the best of times and the worst of times, and at the very least, an immensely unsettling time.
But what does Jesus always say to us in such times, “Do not be afraid…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”
It’s a whole new day.
Jesus will give us the courage to let go of those things that we need to release.
Jesus will give us the wisdom to modify those things that need new life breathed into them.
Jesus will give us the vision walk in new ways, just as he has done all along, new paths that will let our hearts soar, even as our feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Wherever this whole thing is going, one thing is for sure, we follow one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he will orient us in the way we need to go. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 2, 2012