As I begin to age, the Song of Songs makes more and more sense to me. Some folks think it’s crazy to have an erotic love story plopped into the middle of the Bible. Lovers peeking around corners, sensual touches, intimacy. What’s this doing in The Bible? This is serious business. After all, isn’t God the Judge on the Bench?
Well no. The whole Bible is just one gigantic, endless love story. It’s too easy to forget that. Our psalm today spells it out:
My heart overflows, I address my verses to the king who loves me.
I am loved with a perfect love by my friend and my king, my Lord and My God.
I am a happy man. And I have a wife whom I love and who loves me. I am learning about love. I’m learning about love from my wife and from my God. (Katie wanted me to take out this section.) My wife and my God are not the same person... though sometimes I glimpse God in Katie. It’s supposed to be that way. God is love and where love is God is. Love. I can’t earn it. I don’t deserve it. There’s nothing I can do to increase it. I am lucky and gifted and undeserving and happy... and accepting. But most of all, I’m loved.
The four little sentences we’ve heard this morning in the Song of Songs - it’s almost too much. 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."
Okay, I can’t help myself, I’ll translate. God whispers to me, Get up and come, come away from where you’ve been, leave this behind. There is nothing here worth clinging to. The dark period is over. The sorrows and stresses of life, the hard times we needed as part of growing up as humans, those rains are over and done with. You don’t have to put up with any more trials, trials you don’t understand. Look around, flowers are appearing everywhere you turn. You are love. The cooing trill of the dove, the dove of peace is here, complete peace, peace of heart, serenity of soul. Shalom.
We recognize the imagery; the fig tree is the Torah, the fig tree - the Law - has blossomed, yielding its fruit. The sweetness of the Creator’s law is before us as ripe figs falling from their tree of Life. For us. The vine of Messiah, the Savior is blossoming, blooming and we are the blooms on the vine. The scent of our prayers is released as a joyful fragrance.
God calls, Arise my fair one, my beloved. Do you think you’re ugly with sin? If I find you fair, if I call you clean, if I call you completed, you, my work, the creative joyful work of my hand, how can you think yourself anything less? God is gazing in the window, loving us, checking his work and liking it. God is eager to share a glimpse with us. What happens too often? We look away.
You don’t see God? Seeing God is a matter of focal plane. Like a helmsman steering her ship, we go where we look. Look on the surface, the letter, the literal, the physical, that’s what you’ll see. Change your focal length. Look past, underneath, beyond these four earthly dimensions, and you’ll catch glimpses of God peeking at you - waiting for you to show yourself. Children see this way. Children who have not yet been schooled otherwise, they see through and underneath the reflections of light on the surface. They catch glimpses of the real.
Jesus taught his students, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus went on to really stress the importance of this teaching, “If anyone causes one of these little ones...to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
What are the stumbling blocks? What trips us up as we move towards the window through which our Creator and lover peeks at us? Our gospel this morning calls out one of those stumbling blocks. Here it is in one word. I’ll quote Tevye, that immortal bearded milkman from the fictional Byelorussian shtetl of Anatevka: TRADITION! Tradition!
Our gospel reading this morning is a lesson on the stumbling blocks of tradition. “...So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Jesus said to them, Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
I love worshipping with you here at United Ministry of Aurora. You are neither Episcopalian nor Presbyterian. You are People on the Eastern Shore of this great lake dug out by the finger of God. You are God’s people, come together to worship God. Not tradition.
Don’t get me wrong. Ritual is important and powerful. Rites, the sacraments, rituals such as the routines of prayers, Holy Communion, and all the sacraments are critically important. Ritual embodies our faith, brings it into our 3-D/4-D world. Rituals cement our faith, give our human bodies and brains anchors in time and space. Ritual reminds us of our faith and points us to God.
Our rituals keep our focal plane on the invisible, the unseen realities. We do not worship the rituals. We worship our Creator God. The mystery embedded in our rituals directs our attention to our God.
Jesus’ criticism is that the religious leaders had replaced the worship of heart with the worship of human behavior. The Pharisees ignored the meaning of, "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."
God has become incarnate. God became one of us to make us one with him. The promise of God’s love and our love of God is blossoming. It’s calling us forward to be transformed by love - love of God, love of neighbor, love of all creation. But the Pharisees want to know about hand washing. We can all relate - in this Covid era, don’t you hear two choruses of Happy Birthday while you wash your hands? But beware! This is TRADITION, tradition. Worship of tradition is deadly. It is the death of growth, the stumbling block to our transformation into daughters and sons of God.
Think of the arrogance, the pride involved in worship of tradition. We are perfected. There is no more to learn, no further change is required. We’ve got this. We are the peak of evolution. Evolution can stop with me. I am the king of the heap. Bow down to me all of creation, I am not just your steward, I am your boss. I am God. That’s what we’re saying when we worship Tradition.
This morning we also read from the Letter of James. We’re generally taught that James emphasizes the importance of works, the acts of piety and charity which earn us our place in the kingdom. The paradigmatic quote is, “Faith without works is dead.” But that quote, taken alone, is as much of a short hit as any internet meme. The work James refers to are works of faith - Abraham responsive to God’s command to sacrifice his own son, Rahab directing the spies to escape, caring for the truly helpless, the unsupported widow and the uncared for orphan. James cautions about works without the commitment of heart. He’s clear that we don’t earn our way to heaven. First comes faith, and strengthening faith. Then, and only then, can come works which are the fruit of our faith, of our transformed heart.
Many failing institutions have replaced teaching faith, learning faith, growing faith and acting in faith, with a variety of traditions. For example, traditional missions of extending charity to organizations which pass our vetting scrutiny. There is nothing wrong in distributing largesse to those “less fortunate than we blessed.” That’s a good idea. Support good governance and pay your taxes. If the church has excess funds, distribute them in useful ways. But that’s not the purpose of church. Every generous act of giving does not extend from us. James reminds us, this is not of our own doing. “Every generous act of giving is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment 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.
The purpose of the church is to teach, to learn, to remind, to strengthen and encourage our faith and belief that our Creator loves us, cares for us, wants us to change, to become, to continue personally and corporately evolving spiritually until we are sons and daughters of God, kind of a first fruits of his creatures. We are called not to just be better people, but to become members of an emerging new species, that which comes after Homo Sapiens, Sons and Daughters of Homo Sapiens, and like our elder brother Jesus, himself the Son of Man.
Human tradition is the enemy of that growth and change. I am here to tell you that tradition on its own brings death -- death of the soul, death of what we are called to change and become. I can say this because it was true in my own life. I say this in humility and fear. Fear, because James also teaches us that even before caring for helpless widows and orphans, we are to bridle our tongues in humility. But James also teaches that Mercy triumphs over judgement. So I speak these things and ask God’s mercy as a Christian, as a believer in our Creator’s purpose for humanity and all of Creation. I ask for mercy and help on my own journey of transformation. And I encourage you to increase your faith in the invisible reality and truth which underlies and supports this fragile world in which we appear to live and move and have our being. Fan your faith. Make it burn hot. Remember that we are not just dust, we are stardust, created by God, surrounded by God, infused with God. We are the beloved of God. How can we not respond? We are loved by God and destined to return to God. What a joyful journey.