Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Readings for Proper 17 (22) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

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Proper 17B/Ordinary 22B/Pentecost 3 September, 2006 Textweek

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


The Song of Solomon – it’s one of those readings that when it was read in years gone by in churches could even have the reader blushing. The Song of Solomon I think is one of those Hebrew love songs – it almost has a sort of Romeo and Juliet quality about it: she sees him coming and she delights, their love offers freedom, and that freedom, that love is then reflected in the abundance of creation. Just want to read a very short quote from one commentary I read during the week. ‘Judaism has seen these songs as having another level of meaning: the love between God and his people; the man and woman are then the LORD and Israel. Christians have also allegorized mutual love: between Christ and the Church. But the basic meaning is literal: literal love, including sexual love based on human instincts. This is blessed as a part of God's created-ness, to be valued and to be enjoyed.’ That’s probably a fairly common commentary on the Songs of Solomon, but I wonder if instead of seeing allegory in scripture we might consider more the idea of narratives that run in parallel - love leading to creativity, leading to abundance in creation. The action and the intention of love provide an orientation that actually parallels the divine activity and so contributes to the unfolding of creation. We begin to see that the story of Genesis, the creation of the world, is actually an act of love but also it is every act of love, for the beginning of the world occurs all the time - we’re not just running on a momentum that started back in Genesis, we actually create tomorrow in the present moment and the creative activity is love.

We begin to see in the letter of James, an echo of this and probably in a more practical sense. There is a clear echo in James of the loving intent that was expressed in the poetry in the Song of Solomon. ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.’ If you just take the first half of the reading that we had today and look for the echoes, the language, that’s in the poetry of the Old Testament reading: verse 17, we have ‘every generous act of giving’; 18, ‘he gave us birth’, ‘the first fruits’; 19, ‘my beloved’; 20, ‘produce’; 21, ‘the implanted word’. It’s almost as if we’ve moved from poetry and said there’s an outworking in life of what is expressed in the Old Testament reading. And it’s as if the poetry of love is then directed towards activity; it’s as if the parallel of life lived in the spirit is brought alongside life lived in the world. ‘Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror.’ What an interesting analogy – ‘like those who look at themselves in a mirror’ – if there are no other eyes for you to look into to see love, then we look to the mirror in desperation and hope we might see it there. ‘Be doers of the word, not hearers of the word’ – the activity of love asks something of us.

The Song of Solomon is not there for us to just listen to and see it as a nice piece of poetry, but rather for us to hear and then translate and then do. Love has got both an intimate physical expression, and that really is its orientation to an other, and then it also has a universal expression and that is its orientation towards all others. Love finds its expression in generous giving, for giving is the activity of creation, giving is the divine activity. ‘Every generous act of giving with every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of Lights with whom there is no variation or shadow. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures’. Love expressed in generous giving is the orientation towards fullness of life and so to the abundance of creation and the unfolding of creation in which we share and participate.
When we come to the gospel narrative, Jesus confronts the religious practices that have institutionalised love and confined it; love becomes confined in the chains of the doctrines of the church - no longer do we see the love that sets free. The activity of the heart, the place of love, the symbol of love is seen to have a darker and shadow side. What we find when we put the three readings together is the power and the potential of love, the source of our creativity, has the capacity for good and for evil, has the capacity for creating and creativity and for destroying and destruction. ‘Listen to me all of you and understand, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it from within, from the human heart that evil intentions come’.

The three readings really do ask us to reflect on the power of love - love as the divine activity, love as that which gives birth to tomorrow. And on Fathers’ Day there‘s a wonderful opportunity to reflect on that which is birthed in love. And we need to make a distinction, and it’s a distinction I think, which is why we had the symbol of Father as a symbol of God. If we just had God as creator then what we’re left with is an image of creating. Now we can create outside of ourselves, so we can build things, we can build houses, we can create homes, we can create meals, we can create cars and bridges, we can create bombs and war planes. So creativity can be very outward thing, there’s a distinction made in the notion of Father and the theology of the Trinity whereby we introduce the concept of begetting and if we had the old King James version it’s that version that’s got all the begetting in it – one begat the other, begat the other, which we just think of as sort of lineages, this is a story about ancestral lines. There’s a distinction made though between begetting and creating; begetting is an act of love, an act that goes beyond creating, because to beget is to create of oneself; rather than to create from without we create from within. The act of begetting is the divine activity; the story of Genesis is not the story of God in a workroom creating a world outside, the story of Genesis is of God creating in love - giving birth creating of God’s self. And so we are made in the image and the likeness of God - not as a statue that looks like, but rather of the being of God.

If we look at these stories and consider that what they point to is that which we can create of ourselves, then we can begin to see ourselves, no matter who we are, in the image of God the father, for each and all of us have the opportunity to create something that is of ourselves. Those who have children can see it quite easily, although as they grow you start to realise that they’re not quite as ‘of ourselves’ as we thought. Priests that baptise have spoken of it as an act of birth; Catholic priests who have no children will often speak of baptising children in the same way that parents will speak of that moment in the maternity ward. I assume that writers and painters have that experience; composers have that experience; we all do have that experience. I think we can, if we look within, we can discern between that which we create and that which and that which we beget: that which is of ourselves, that’s the place from which tomorrow is created. The rest? The rest keeps us busy, the rest does have value, but tomorrow is actually created from the place in which we beget something of ourselves for the whole, for each and every other.

So we can rejoice in Fathers’ Day and look within, because for some the begetting is still to be begotten - it waits, it’s there. It’s been called, the gift is given, it now seeks to find expression. As we re-read the readings today, let us pray that we might give them expression and so reflect the divine activity of love in the creation of tomorrow.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris