Song of Songs 2:8-13
Sermon – 2 September 2018. 1st Sunday of Creation
On 21 February 2012, five members of the group Pussy Riot staged a performance in the sanctuary of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their actions were stopped by church security officials. By evening, they had turned it into a music video entitled “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!”. The women said their protest was directed at the Orthodox Church leader’s support for Putin during his election campaign. They were subsequently arrested and given harsh prison sentences.
Pussy Riot are ‘trouble-makers’; Resisting the collusion of power and religion in Russia.. standing up for the rights of the outsider, minorities, women, gay people, satirists, artists, radical thinkers, dissenters … naming the oppression of wealth, exclusion and power..
But these activists are the outsiders themselves.. provocative, confrontational, prepared to suffer.. They are the real deal.. flawed of course.. but shining a light in dark places. They performed at Greenbelt last week, and excited Greenbelter’s t-shirts read ‘We are all Pussy Riot’. This subversion is inclusive.. invitational .. we can all be part of the resistance..
The reading we have today ties up with this attitude by resisting the oppression of power, this time religious power. Jesus is asking about ‘the heart’ the center of our being.. the psyche or ‘soul’. He is asking profound questions about how we live in the world, how we receive the gift of God and how we live with others.. He calls us to recognise the corrosion of the human heart, of all hearts; and God’s invitation to see the world differently.
But for a moment let’s be fair to the Pharisees… they Pharisaical tradition stems from the very origins of the Hebrew tradition, the book of Exodus; before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6).
The tradition for any Priest was to wash their hands before any sacred ritual…
This then became the norm for everyday ritual.. such as eating, because what they wanted to affirm was that all human activity has a sacred element to it… eating, in itself, was sacred.
This is good.. we might agree; it affirms the gift – and goodness – of all things.
The tradition said that the call of G-d is a gift.. And that gift deserves recognition and honour! They called it the Torah, the Law.. and to them it was the most beautiful gift.. it was G-d (Yahweh) speaking to them.
Its interesting that even in the story the small detail that the disciples didn’t ritually wash – it was not, the case that ‘all the Jews’ practiced this…(despite Mark’s generalization), I don’t think the disciples would have changed a life-time practice to make a point – that’s not happening here. It clearly isn’t a common practice for these ‘rough Galileans’, and the Pharisees pick up on it as a sign of weakness – a way to attack Jesus.
It’s often very easy to knock the Pharisees as self-important and heart-less. But it may be fairer to say that they were – in faith, hope and yes, delight – following the traditions of their ancestors…
But we can remember too that the writer of Mark is weaving a story together… and these Pharisees (‘of Jerusalem’ specifically) will soon have a pivotal role in the death of Jesus.. Mark’s gospel hurtles forward at breathless pace.. and here is a hint of ‘foreshadowing’ if ever we saw it! (a hint in a story about what’s to come later on).
But to the point.. well points… (there are many!)
Jesus is speaking to three groups; the Pharisees, the gathered crowds, and to his disciples.. and they all hear in different ways, (and of course – in Mark – the disciples seem to understand the least, and so require further explanation). Jesus is offering a corrective.. and a challenge. He is calling the listeners to return to the origin of this washing ritual, and using this as a method of approaching the whole of the law.. he is calling them back to their first love… to Yahweh.
Funny that we have the beautiful, rich and poetic love song, the song of songs, as our OT reading today. ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away’, that same evocative, almost romantic yearning.
We can hear his deeper question; “why are you doing this? For whom? For yourselves, for others, for God?”
It’s not about what you do.. but about who you are in response to G-d. It’s about how you respond to the endlessly subversive, challenging and affirming voice that can be found in the ‘unclean’ as much as the clean…
And this really brings us to the challenge for us all. Who, or what, do we consider to be unclean today.. what is outside of your boundaries? What can we learn from those outside of the borders?
Jesus challenge calls us all out.. to understand, to listen (and listen again) and to love…
Of course there will always remains things which are truly ‘unclean’; murder, rape, abuse, exploitation of people and planet.. These contravene justice.. they break down relationship and stand in resistance to the G-d whose very being is relationship… and we must call those things out, like Pussy Riot’s fabulous risk-taking.
But these are not what we – or Jesus – was talking about here; he’s getting at our own self-made ideas of who’s in and who’s out, morals based on traditions, prejudice and power.
But the kingdom the already/not yet kingdom is there within us all.. its call is fully inclusive.. Will you respond to God’s call of endless, generous love.. will you ‘arise my love’?
Yesterday we attended Reading Pride!.. a gaudy, brash, bright positive party – of love and inclusion.. but more that simply a party… a movement which affirms the diversity, the colour and complexity of humanity and which has emerged from the oppressed ‘outsider’.
Those boundaries are dangerous, violent. It’s often when sons, daughters, friends and relatives enter this ‘outside’ world that we realise that we are united by our humanity, and yet all different; when borders break down; and we see that the love of God is endlessly giving.
For LGBTQI+ people there is a dark history of prejudice, exclusion, oppression, hatred and murder and perpetrated by those who ‘guard the border’ of in and out.
And sadly that includes the church too.
Pride! Reminds us that the outsider might also include the refugee, the disabled, the mentally unwell, the lonely, differing ethnicities, the homeless… (who decides who is in and who’s out, what is ‘clean or unclean’?). And on the 1st Sunday of Creation Season that also makes us think of the exploited earth.
Creation Season tells us of the beauty and gift of difference. It is precisely these voices from the margins, from the outside which have, and still can, help the church when it listens.. to understand and to grow – to return to its first love. The love of G-d, the love of people; no buts, no ifs. just love; simple, calling, ‘arise, arise’.
The church is facing huge challenges right now.. (declining numbers are not really the problem at all).. but abuse, irrelevance, upholding borders, siding with power (Christendom), excluding, judging, colluding with power has revealed it very much mis-using power – and people see through that!
Yet it could be so different – we stand at a crossroads.. God calls all people to live in a different reality.. one that comes from the heart.. that challenges the heart; that nudges, and provokes and provokes again, (how do we love the oppressor?).. the challenge is always there, and within the challenge – the seeds of hope.
The lover of ‘the greatest song’ is right.. The springtime is always upon us; the kingdom of God is always calling – inviting us to savor a different reality..
Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
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.”
Gary S Collins