Proper 17 – Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:Alternate Reading 1:Alternate Reading 2:
Song of Solomon 2:8-13Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10James 1:17-27Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9Psalm 15

By David Grant Smith

Song of Solomon 2 / Psalm 45

This pair of readings serves to demonstrate (in some potentially graphic ways) some vital aspects of what is involved in what we could term “belovedness” – those things which are attributes of loving and being loved. The Song of Solomon text is about a romance – a relationship in the making. Its response, Psalm 45, is a wedding hymn which reflects on the culmination of a romance (albeit a royal wedding which, no doubt, had political as well as romantic issues to consider; because of this, some process preachers may want to think through whether it is a text we want to hold before a congregation).

The whole of Song of Solomon is about the interplay between Lover and Beloved. Today’s brief passage is a reflection on how one perceives the approach of the other. On a literal level, the whole book is about a human love relationship. On a metaphoric level – or what Marcus Borg calls a “more-than-literal level” – the book is a reflection on the relationship between God and God’s faithful people. For Jews, the book is often allegorized as the interplay of God and Israel. For early Christians, it was considered as a typology plumbing the depths of the relationship between Christ and the Church. However one interprets the layers of the text, the text itself is filled with poetic imagery which celebrates relationship. Process theology is often called process-relational theology; and this text is ripe with relational imagery.

Preaching this text may provide an opportunity to explore the many ways of being relational – whether in the literal (human-to-human) interpretation of the text, or in the “more-than-literal” (Divine-human) interpretation of it. Perhaps this text could be used to explore and explicate the diversity of human relationships, including (but not limited to) an approach to marriage equality and an affirmation of same-sex relationships. It’s also possible to use the text as a launching pad into exploring the interdependent relationships between humans and the flora and fauna of our world, since the poetic similes of the text refer to various creatures as points of comparison. Whatever relationships are explored in preaching, we find in this text Beauty, Adventure, Truth, Peace, Zest – a list of qualities which Marjorie Suchocki uses to describe the Primordial Nature of God, all of which may be expressed in terms of love, and in terms of God’s continual luring of all our relationships toward love. It may be a profoundly “preachable” moment to explore how we experience God’s lure in so very many ways – even in the lure to “arise” and “come away” with someone for the purpose of nurturing a budding romance!

Deuteronomy 4 / Psalm 15

This pair of readings work together to provide a system of self-examination. Whereas Deuteronomy 4 serves as an instructive lesson on the importance of heeding and obeying the Torah (perhaps mores specifically the so-called Ten Commandments), Psalm 15 serves as something akin to a catechism – a rhetorical question about who is worthy to dwell in God’s presence, followed by ten tools of discernment.

From a process perspective, it’s difficult to reconcile the notion in Deuteronomy that God’s law may not have anything added to it or subtracted from it. As process people, we see God’s law as something more fluid – especially when so many of the laws of the ancient world seem to promote sexist, racist, homophobic, and other malevolent mindsets which to our modern sensibilities are (as Torah states) an abomination. This assertion in the text (that the Law is complete and immutable) may be an opportunity to engage a congregation in conversations around the place of commandments in their original contexts – not unlike much of the current conversations in the United States about the role of the Constitution and the intent of the Founders. As societies evolve, so do their circumstances; and process theology helps us to see that God is present in that evolution, always luring us to grow beyond our initial understanding of any “given.” Similarly, we have difficulty in not adding to this Law, as circumstances and realities have arisen over the millennia which have necessitated the social enterprise of an evolving humanity in legislating itself in new and creative ways. Furthermore, it is more helpful (and, to some degree, even more in keeping with Torah) to see it as something that is alive; and though the words themselves haven’t changed, their ability to speak in new ways and to grow in meaning need not be bound by literalism or fundamentalism.

Having said that, perhaps another way of reading this text can lead us toward seeing the ancient Israelites as trying to forge what might be called a “relational patriotism” as opposed to a patriotism of “might makes right.” The relational aspects of this reading are implying that this people (this nation) will find its identity in its relationships with God, and with God’s covenantal commandments. And, for the most part, the commandments are themselves a code of relational living. The assertions of this brief passage lead us to see a people/nation who move into their relationship with this Law (and their God) through lure and invitation, rather than through coercion and domination. Their way of defining themselves as being a people/nation is to affirm their interdependence – or, to use a word so aptly coined by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, they readily affirm their “interbeing.”

The use of Psalm 15 as a response to those assertions runs a bit contrary to a process world at first glance. To ask the question “Who may abide in your tent, O God?” is to simultaneously assert that there are those who live outside of God’s embrace. A preacher might use this psalm to remind folks that in a process understanding of the world and humanity God is always present, and that we are always inside of God’s embrace. We can, rather, take the psalm to be an invitation to do some self-examination (both individually and corporately) to determine whether or not we are open to God’s presence with us (and within us), and whether or not we are mindfully and intentionally living in active awareness of our interrelatedness with others. Are we doing our best to respond to God’s lure toward the Initial Aim by abiding intentionally in right relationships with God, self, family, neighbors, strangers, and creation itself? The psalm provides a list of affirming qualities by which we can reflect and discern whether we are intentionally living inside that lure toward the initial aim. If this psalm doesn’t become the focus of the sermon this week, perhaps some of its verses might be utilized for self-examination, whether as intercessory prayer or as confession.

James 1

The invitation to relational living continues in this week’s reading from James. In fact, this week we begin a semi-continuous romp through this Epistle over the next several weeks. A preacher looking for some practical and concrete examples of how to live into what process theologians call the Initial Aim can be found in the list of empathic behaviors described in this pericope: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…” To treat other people this way is a generous way to allow room in a relationship, allowing others to fully express themselves. To be open to people is to be open to God; and to be open to people is to participate in and “incarnate” God’s purposes – to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers” – in all aspects of life.

The pragmatic approach to theology that the author of James uses provides ripe opportunities for the process preacher to explore the many ways in which interrelatedness is yet another lure of God. The Initial Aim of God is constantly inviting us to respond in empathic, relational, and affirming ways to each person (and each moment) we encounter in life. We can, through various spiritual disciplines, make ourselves more open to that lure from God, so that we can become more open to people and become those “doers of the word” which the author admonishes us to be. And our participation in that lure finds its concrescence in the open, accepting, affirming relationships that come from heeding the practical advice from the author of James. In this approach to life expounded in this Epistle, and many other parts of Scripture, the word of God becomes a living, breathing, dynamic being through the intentional living out of our lives, opening the way for creative transformation in all of our relationships.

Mark 7

The process preacher will, of course, know that this particular story from Mark’s Gospel is a bit of a slippery slope. A casual reading of it could lead to the presumption that Jesus is dismissive of Jewish dietary codes and traditions – the very customs that have formed the Kosher laws which our contemporary Jewish sisters and brothers observe. This was not what Jesus was doing in this interchange, though. Rather, Jesus is trying to challenge his contemporaries to consider the heart of the traditions rather than the traditions themselves. Having said that, perhaps some process preachers might want to creatively use today’s text as an invitation for their congregations to consider various aspects of interfaith relations by learning more about Jewish Kosher and dietary traditions.

However, it could also be an extremely profitable thing for a preacher to delve into the heart of the matter – the things to which Jesus was objecting. And the heart of the matter is that God is more concerned with how human beings treat one another, and what they say to one another, than with what we eat or drink, or whether we wash our hands. Jesus challenged them (and challenges us) to consider other peoples’ well being as being the driving force of our traditions, and not our own sense of purity or defilement, let alone the notion of preserving tradition simply for the sake of having tradition – which could easily become a form of idolatry. Jesus summarized a general posture on this matter when he said earlier in Mark, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The “traditions of the elders” are meant to serve humanity for the common good; humanity is not meant to serve the traditions of the elders. This might be one way of rephrasing the words from Isaiah which Jesus uses to spell out his position.

We process preachers might also find this text to be rich with opportunities for exploring with our congregations an important and challenging aspect about the nature of God as understood in process theology. All experiences of all life are absorbed into the Consequent Nature of God. Therefore, if (as Jesus suggests) we defile ourselves by speaking and acting inappropriately towards others (by what comes out of our hearts and our mouths), then we are also aiming those inappropriate words and behaviors toward God; and when defiling ourselves by doing/saying them, we are also defiling God in a way, too. In a process understanding of God, God and humanity are all dynamic, interrelated, and are affected and shaped by each other. What happens to us is also received into God; what we do has a direct impact on God. Matthew’s Gospel spells that out in specific terms in the 25th Chapter, when Jesus declares, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”

As is often the case with lectionary texts that are snipped together and not contiguous, part of the impact of what is said can be made even clearer by sharing what is skipped. Many preachers may decide to use all of Mark 7:1-23 for the Gospel reading this Sunday, as a means of providing some helpful context. The argument Jesus makes in 7:9-13 becomes rather telling of how inconsistent (and self-serving) humans can be in the way we choose which traditions we are willing to uphold and use for our own purposes, rather than for the purposes of serving God and/or the common good. It might make for a lengthy Gospel reading, but it would certainly help provide greater context and clarity to many of the potential topics a preacher may want to explore in preaching from this text.