Based on Song of Songs 2:8-13, Psalm 45, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:14-23
Christian teaching, really all Abrahamic religious teachings, speak to us about growing into a pure and unconditional love for God and all of creation. This is something that most all of us have trouble achieving. Our struggle brings us a great amount of angst and self-castigation, because we never feel good enough; many feel they are too sinful or defiled to be in relationship with a pure and loving God. The truth is that we are human, fallible, and we will likely never achieve sainthood, but we can make room in our lives for the Christ to come and to transform us into the disciples we are gifted to become. The spiritual writer, Brennan Manning, wrote a story entitled, “Shipwreck at the Stable”. In it he tells a story of St. Francis and Brother Leo who were speaking about how difficult it is to be pure of heart or undefiled. The story goes like this: “…One day Saint Francis and brother Leo were walking down the road. Noticing Leo was depressed, Francis turned and asked, ‘Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?’ ‘Of course. It means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.’ ‘Ah, said Francis, now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.’
‘Right, said Leo. ‘That’s why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.’ ‘Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire Him. Rejoice that He is what He is – your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with Him. The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself, on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise Him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into His peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled – stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord….’”
Our readings for today shower us with poetic visions of an unconditional love that is offered from God. The Song of Songs and Psalm 45 sing to us of being carried away by such a love. The writer of the letter of James tells his audience that, like the teachings of St. Francis, we are to rejoice in the “implanted word that has the power to save our (your) souls” and we must devote our lives doing the work of that implanted word. Jesus is teaching about how we defile ourselves and others by the things we say and do that are apart from the teachings of the implanted, incarnate Word, Jesus. Let us go to God now in prayer that we might turn to Jesus and rejoice that He is Lord…
The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) always seems to be out of place in the 1st Testament. The biblical translator, Robert Alter, has this to say in his introduction to the Book: “The extraordinary variegation of the books of the Hebrew Bible in style, genre, and outlook is one of the most exciting aspects of this anthology that spans nearly a millennium. But even against that background, the Song of Songs stands out in its striking distinctiveness – a distinctiveness that deserves to be called wondrous….” This collection of love poems speak to us of the possibility of losing ourselves in love with God as we may have with another human. This undefiled love calls to us and renews us as Spring renews the world following Winter.
The Epistle of James is written to believers who are widely scattered due to persecutions. The writer is reminding them of all that they are in Jesus and how to stay pure or undefiled. In our reading today, he tells them to love each other well by looking to the “implanted word” for guidance. They need to put these teachings to work caring for those less fortunate (here listed as widows and orphans in distress). The writer of this letter tells the audience that religion that is pure and undefiled is marked by caring for those in need and by keeping oneself “unstained by the world”.
Jesus has been debating back and forth with a group of Pharisees and scribes over some fine points of Jewish law. The impetus was the latter group observing some of the disciples eating with unwashed or “defiled” hands. Just before our reading today, Jesus has pointed out the hypocrisy of the Temple leaders and then turns to the crowd saying, “…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….” Jesus calls into question the teachings of the Temple leaders, quoting the prophet Isaiah saying, “…in vain do they worship God (me), teaching human precepts as doctrines….” He goes on to add, “…You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition….” Jesus makes the point that what has been defiled is God’s commandment, through elevating human rules over God’s.
I have mentioned before that church history shows that it didn’t take long at all, probably less than 100 years after the murder of Jesus, for the Church structure and teachings to be codified. Soon, people wanting to join “The Way” entered into a three- year training program and then were baptized during the Easter Vigil. Saints of the Church like Augustine, continued to clarify the stance of the Church to distinguish it from common heresies of the day like Gnosticism and Pelagianism. It wasn’t too long before the Catholic Church dominated the world and had sole say in what was right and wrong – not just in the Church but in science and the larger society. In short, the Church had once again done what the Pharisees and Sadducees had done before them…replaced the commandments of God with human rules and doctrine.
We are currently struggling with this erroneous behavior in The United Methodist Church. No matter what camp (i.e., progressive, traditionalist, centrist) one most identifies with, all promote and teach more “human precepts as doctrines” than they do actual commandments of God. Literal readings of the Bible and the doctrines that are produced from that interpretation of scripture, reduce the nuanced and ever evolving and inspiring Bible to mere dos and don’ts. This is a far cry from how Jesus experienced the Tanakh and how He chose to teach about the kingdom of God and what it meant to live undefiled.
John Wesley and his brother Charles understood and lived their faith in a different way. Gone for them was the rigid, rule enforcing doctrines of the Church of England. Instead, they followed the teahcings of the writer of James who said that to lead a life of meaning and purpose – to live a life ever closer to God, we need to take the implanted and incarnate Word and put it to work in our world. Thus, while they were still at Oxford, a small band of them got together and visited the poor, the incarcerated, the hospitalized, the marginalized. Later, John went outside the walls of the church to preach where the people who were really starving for the good news lived, worked and played. John and Charles devoted their lives to living in a way that brought the Bible and the teachings of Jesus to life. They lived lives that sought to be undefiled and as pure as they could be. John even wrote his Covenant Prayer to which he would rededicate himself every New Year’s Day. John Wesley’s covenant prayer demonstrates a level of undefiled sacrifice and devotion to Jesus that is rare. For example…how many of us have asked God for suffering, in order to experience the humility and the poverty of spirit that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This prayer forces us to ask how committed we are to God’s will in our lives (versus our own). Are we willing to suffer for Christ? Are we willing to focus outside ourselves on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of God as witnessed in Jesus the Christ?
I will give John’s prayer the last word today as a way forward for us to become undefiled: “I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.” Amen.