The Rev’d Jeff Nowers / September 2, 2018
Have you ever preached a Sunday morning homily in an Anglican church? If so, you’ll know that, typically, the preacher doesn’t determine the biblical readings for the day. We don’t decide in advance, on the basis of our own preferences or what mood we’re in, the Scripture texts to be read. We follow a lectionary based pattern of readings, which is derived largely from the Roman Catholic lectionary that emerged out of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. It’s a three-year cycle of readings that usually contains selections from the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament epistles, and the Gospels.
Those who worked hard at putting the lectionary together operated with a certain logic. The Old Testament—the first lesson—is paired with the Gospel—the last reading—so that the Gospel is to be understood as something of a development, or an explanation, or a fulfillment of the Old Testament lesson. The challenge that any preacher faces is to contemplate how all the lectionary readings, particularly the Old Testament and the Gospel, might be related. But all too often the connections, if there are any, aren’t obvious at all. Today is a perfect example. Our first reading is drawn from the Song of Solomon, which doesn’t get very much air time in the lectionary. It’s about an expression of desire from one lover to another, and a shared yearning to escape, to go away and be together. Today’s Gospel, on the other hand, seems anything but that. It’s the story of a dispute between religious leaders and Jesus over to what extent washing should happen before eating—and Jesus ends up charging these religious leaders with hypocrisy. What does that have to do with the kind of longing expressed so poetically between two lovers? Here’s my attempt to tackle the issue.
Up until the last 200 years or so, the Song of Solomon—which is comprised of poetic love speeches of a man and woman to each other—was widely read as an allegory. Prior to the time of Christ, it was commonly accepted that the man was God and the woman was Israel. In early Christianity this was adapted so that the man stood for Christ and the woman represented any individual Christian. Or sometimes the man was God and the woman was the church as a whole. In any case, the point of it all—and this is perhaps a bit of an oversimplification—was to demonstrate in sensual imagery the depths of the love of God. Now, there are those who argue that using allegory as a device to read the Song of Solomon prevents us from reading it at face value with full appreciation for the all the eroticism it contains. I think that argument carries a lot of weight. But I also think we haven’t exhausted all the creative possibilities that allegory provides us.
So with today’s reading, let me suggest this for consideration. When the figure called “the beloved” says repeatedly, “arise, my love, and come away,” it goes both ways. There’s no reason why that statement may be, on the one hand, an expression of our longing for God—a desire to know God, sense God, to experience God. Or even if we’re not keen on naming it as a longing for God, it’s at the very least a longing for something beyond us, a depth of life that seems to elude us. On the other side of the equation, the voice beckoning to “come away” is also God inviting us to embrace a different way of being—to see the world differently, to embrace the world in a different way than what general expectations might dictate.
What might that different way of being look like? This is where I think we can make a connection with today’s Gospel. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had set up a very rigorous protocol of social purity, which included elaborate washing rituals before meals. It was a way to distinguish and set apart those who were sticking to what Mark’s Gospel calls “the tradition of the elders.” The problem with this rigid tradition was that it required a lot of clean water in order to perform the various washings—which was not simply about the hands, but also the dishes and utensils, and even the food itself! Many ordinary folk, such as farmers and travelers like Jesus, simply didn’t have the resources to follow this tradition; it benefited the elites who had the means to access an abundance of clean water. So what does Jesus do when the religious leaders accuse his followers of failing to uphold this washing tradition? He tells them off, calling them hypocrites and quoting the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus then turns his attention to his followers and invites them to rethink the entire notion of purity. Purity and cleanliness aren’t established by erecting social walls of protection. For Jesus, it’s not what you do to protect yourself from the “dirt” of other people. If you’re concerned about dirt and moral contamination, the potential for that is already inside of you. You don’t pick it up, like catching a bad cold or the flu from someone else. What Jesus is saying is both sobering and extraordinarily freeing. It’s sobering because it forces us to come to terms with the fact that we all have the capacity to be implicated in evil. But Jesus’ words are also freeing because we don’t need to concern ourselves with maintaining honor over shame, purity over uncleanliness, exclusion over inclusion. We can engage and interact with anyone—regardless of their lot in life, their struggles, their faults and foibles. So, when we hear the lover in the Song of Solomon say “come away,” it’s an invitation to enter this alternative way of life that Jesus is describing, a life that disavows social boundaries, a life that embodies hospitality and welcome for all, especially the hurting.
Isn’t that also what our second reading from the letter of James describes? “Religion,” James says, “that is pure and undefiled before God … is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”—a world, in our day, where too many struggle to keep themselves afloat. My dream for St. Aidan’s—for all of us—is that we’ll be a beacon of hope in this immediate neighborhood and in our city; that we’ll embody together a different way of being, of love and care and compassion that knows no bounds of purity; that all those around us may be invited to “come away” and live into this alternative reality. From what I can see, it’s already begun to happen. Let’s continue to build on that foundation.