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Sermon for 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Sep 02, 2018

Passage: Mark 7:1-23

Series: Sermons for Year B (2017-2018)

Category: Sermons for Year B (2017-2018)


Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (2018)
September 2, 2018
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel) 

Song of Solomon 2:8-13       James 1:17-27     Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I have to start off by telling you all something. I LOVE the Old Testament lesson from this morning. Or, perhaps I should say that I love the book it’s from. It’s from one of the shorter books of scripture known as the Song of Solomon, which is better titled the Song of Songs because even though we don’t really know who wrote it, most scholars agree that it was not likely written by King Solomon of Israel. I once read a convincing argument in a book that made the claim that the Song of Songs was written mostly by a woman - if you’d like to know more about that, please let me know later and I’ll tell you more about the book. In any case, if you’re paying attention to the weekly readings, then you’ll note that this selection from the Song of Songs is the ONLY selection we get from this book in our yearly cycle of Sunday readings.  

And the reason we get so little material on Sundays from the Song of Songs is because the rest of the book is a bit racy. It’s essentially an erotic love poem, and some of the passages in it are…well, let’s just say they are pretty suggestive and leave little to the imagination. What we have this morning is a delightful wooing call that speaks about how the two lovers in the poem should find joy in life amidst the newness and beauty of creation. But if I were to read some other passages from the Song of Songs to you, you might need to start using your program as a fan. 

And that might raise the question about why the Song of Songs included in scripture in the first place. One very simplistic answer is that it’s in there because “it’s the Word of God.” If you’re satisfied with that answer, that’s fine, but I think that’s a boring answer.  

Another, I think more interesting, answer is that the Song of Songs can be read as an allegory. In other words, it can provide a way to picture our own relationship with God as something of a thrilling love affair. The book has been read allegorically and “spiritualized” in this way all across the ages; even back to the time that it was decided to include it as one of the official books of scripture. At various times and places, the Song of Songs has been allegorized as a love poem between God and the people of Israel, or between Christ and the Church. And a purely allegorical reading can certainly justify why the Song of Songs was included in scripture.  

But another answer to why the Song of Songs was included in scripture is that the theme of the book speaks to the reality of human experience, and since romantic love and desire are so much a part of what it is to be human - what it is to be a part of the created world - NOT to include a word about romance and desire in scripture would have been a grave omission. Even if the book was meant to be an allegory, the allegory is so steeped in the realities of our own experience that it’s difficult to completely spiritualize it and remove the sense that this book of the Bible is utterly sensual. So I think it’s possible to make the case that the book gets included in scripture not merely because of the deeper spiritual significance that can be found through an allegorical reading, but also because people realized the Song of Songs spoke a truth that needed to be acknowledged openly, understood rightly, and incorporated into the sacred story of what made the people of God the people of God. And because the Song of Songs does speak such a truth, the compilers of Hebrew scripture - I think, wisely - decided that it needed to be part of their tradition.

Now, why am I bringing all of this up? I do so because I think the story of truth telling that lies behind the Song of Songs speaks directly to what’s going on in the Gospel lesson. Because the overarching theme of what’s going on in the Gospel lesson has to do with how we are supposed to understand tradition. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus’ critics think that Jesus and his disciples are breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before they eat. In their eyes, Jesus and the disciples are guilty of two crimes: the first is breaking the tradition of the elders, and the other is eating with defiled hands. Jesus responds by saying that his critics do not have a proper understanding of what really matters within their own tradition, and as a result, they don’t understand what defilement really is. You might even say that, in quoting the passage from Isaiah, Jesus makes the claim that his critics have betrayed God.

Here’s where I’m going to get a bit heady, but the word tradition itself offers us some insight into what Jesus is getting at. The English word “tradition” comes to us from the Latin word “tradere,” and that word can have two meanings. One is “to hand over” or “to hand on.” And it’s this definition that is usually what we mean when we use the word “tradition” to mean the practices or beliefs that others have held before us. But the other meaning of the Latin word “tradere” is “to betray.” And it’s this definition that we need to be aware of when it comes to what we are doing when we’re handing on the practices or beliefs that others have held before us. Because it is all too easy to think that we are being faithful to tradition when really we are betraying what others have held before us. 

Examples of such betrayal abound in the history of the church, but we can see betrayal going on even today. The sexual abuse scandal that is rocking the church, to put it bluntly, came about because of widespread and unchecked betrayal. Those who were responsible for handing over the tradition of the church - the tradition of love and service and care and empowerment and truth telling — did not hand on the tradition of the church. Instead, they did exactly the opposite. They betrayed the tradition of the church. Countless lives have been - and are - affected by the betrayal of those whose job it was to “hand on” the good news. And I do not doubt for a second that for many of the victims, the church will forever represent betrayal, and that reality should fill the heart of every Christian, concerned with handing on the the goodness of our tradition, with profound sadness. It should also make each and every believer stop and think about just what our own role is in handing on our tradition to others. 

If we are handing on to others the tradition that it’s better to appear to be righteous than to actually be righteous, then we really are working with defiled hands. If we are handing on to others the tradition that dishonesty and secretiveness are more important than seeking and serving the truth, then we cannot claim to be disciples of Jesus. If we, even tacitly, are handing on to others the tradition that the church as an institution is more important than the well being of even one child, then we are nothing more than hypocrites.

The lesson that I take from the Song of Songs is that it tells the truth, and that’s why it was included in scripture. The inclusion of that book set in place a tradition of being honest and refusing to ignore one of the the most powerful realities about life. Generally speaking, the inclusion of that book set in place the idea that if we ignore the truth and try to sweep it under the rug, then we’re betraying the tradition. Jesus is calling attention to this general reality in what he says about the true meaning and value of tradition. 

Our response to this morning’s lessons, then, should be to ask ourselves what our tradition really is. To ask ourselves what it is that we have received that we hope to pass on to others. To ask ourselves if there is anything good in what we have received - if there is something of truth or beauty or grace - in the tradition we have learned, and whether those things are what we ought to be striving to hand on to others. And so, I will leave you all with a question to ponder: If the future of the church depends on my being faithful to tradition, how am I being faithful to that tradition?