Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Rev. Karen Barfield

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

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

“The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills….
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.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

When hearing these words, it is difficult not to get caught up in their life-giving Spirit!

Whether the beloved is a human lover or a loving God, one cannot help but take delight upon hearing the words:

“Look, he comes…leaping upon the mountains…bounding over the hills!”

The beloved takes such joy in us that he comes leaping and bounding.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away….”

The cold and wet winter is past,
the flowers are blooming,
the birds are singing,
the air is filled with fragrance,
fruit emerges on the vines.

Life is full,
and overflowing with richness.

It is a moment to breathe deeply.

It is God’s gift of creation
and re-creation.
It is good.

The tenor of our first reading echoes in the first words of today’s reading from the Letter of James:

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (James 1:17-18)

We are created by a loving and compassionate God to extend God’s loving embrace to the world in which we live.

When we hear words such as these from the Song of Solomon, it is easy to remember and feel embraced as God’s beloved, and yet as we are reminded in the remainder of the reading from James and in our reading from Mark’s Gospel, it is all to easy to have our hearts swayed by the world around us.

As we hear God’s words of our being created in God’s image and our task of reconciling the world to God through forgiveness and grace, do those words enter our ears and descend into our hearts and emerge through our hands?

Or are we like those who look into the mirror and see one person, but once we step aside, our actions no longer reflect the person we saw?

The writer of James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

That is easier said than done.

Wednesday evening I was talking with a Duke Hospital emergency room resident who was telling me about seeing 13 shooting victims who had arrived in the ER over the course of five days. One of the victims was shot across the street from his new apartment.

In light of this news it would be easy to withdraw into fear, to look at others with suspicion when walking or driving down the street.

Is this stranger friend or foe?

It would be easy to just go from work or school to home and not venture forth into the community at all… just to be safe.

To not live in suspicion and fear takes conscious effort in light of such events.

Earlier on Wednesday afternoon I had been alerted to a Google review of St. Joseph’s which reads:

“This Church continuously enables bad behavior. They allow people to live and hang out on site that are involved in heavy criminal activities! The police are called to this property several times a week sometimes multiple times a day. There has been stabbings, drug deals, sex, and the church allows this to continue. This place is an eyesore for the community. It is junky looking on the outside, although it is a very nice building. I think they mean well, but they’re going about it the wrong way! Church, you should be ashamed of your enabling behavior! Clean up your appearance! The community is sick of the behavior that you allow!”

It might be easy to respond to such a review by posting “No Trespassing” signs around the property, but that is not our way.

Just a short while after reading this review I arrived at church and had a conversation with one of our homeless neighbors who was having a rather “down” day. He was overwhelmed by the feeling that nothing is going right.

He had a place to live but the landlord ran into financial trouble and had to kick out the tenants, so this person is waiting until the first of the month to receive income to pay for another place to live. In the meantime he is sleeping on cold, hard concrete. It is not a place he would choose to live, but he has no choice at the moment.

After talking a while and realizing some of the old destructive behaviors he left behind years ago as well as some of the gifts he now has in his life, his mood lifted and he found renewed energy to take care of some tasks to move him forward in his life.

All it took was a conversation…someone willing to listen and not dismiss.

No, we do not condone destructive behavior on the property, and we are trespassing people who engage in such behaviors after telling them that such behaviors are not allowed. And even then we offer to help connect people with resources they need.

Since before I came here, there have been piles of cardboard around the property…that is someone’s mattress.

We have asked those who sleep here to keep their stuff neat and clean up the property.

Our grounds are not immaculate, but each person who comes here has a story.

Each person who comes here for any reason…for worship, for food, for community…we each have our places of deep brokenness.

We each have many moments when we forget or simply don’t believe that we are God’s beloved: created out of Love in order to love.

That is why we gather together to be fed by God’s Word and Christ’s Body and Blood, nurtured by the community of faith, reminding each other that all are part of one Body, encouraged to repent when we wrong another and ourselves and then restored to Communion.

Our calling is to desire as God desires:
to love God and one another,
to seek one another’s healing and wholeness…
to go bounding over mountains and hills and invite others to new life.

This is no easy task.

We need the assistance of God and one another to accomplish these things.

I close with a version of The Lord’s Prayer as written by Ronald Rolheiser… we will be having a book study beginning in a few weeks on his book: The Holy Longing. I invite you to come and talk together as a community about what he has to say in this book. It is a deeply spiritual book that will enrich your life and our community.

He says,

“In the world’s schema of things, survival of the fittest is the rule. In God’s schema, survival of the weakest is the rule. God always stands on the side of the weak and it is there, among the weak, that we find God.

“Given the truth of that, we might occasionally pray the Lord’s Prayer in this way:

Our Father . . . who always stands with the weak, the powerless, the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the aged, the very young, the unborn, and those who, by victim of circumstance, bear the heat of the day.

Who art in heaven . . . where everything will be reversed, where the first will be last and the last will be first, but where all will be well and every manner of being will be well.

Hallowed be thy name . . . may we always acknowledge your holiness, respecting that your ways are not our ways, your standards are not our standards. May the reverence we give your name pull us out of the selfishness that prevents us from seeing the pain of our neighbor.

Your kingdom come . . . help us to create a world where, beyond our own needs and hurts, we will do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with you and each other.

Your will be done . . . open our freedom to let you in so that the complete mutuality that characterizes your life might flow through our veins and thus the life that we help generate may radiate your equal love for all and your special love for the poor.

On earth as in heaven . . . may the work of our hands, the temples and structures we build in this world, reflect the temple and the structure of your glory so that the joy, graciousness, tenderness and justice of heaven will show forth within all of our structures on earth.

Give . . . life and love to us and help us to see always everything as gift. Help us to know that nothing comes to us by right and that we must give because we have been given to….

Us . . . the truly plural us. Give not just to our own but to everyone, including those who are very different than the narrow us. Give your gifts to all of us equally.

This day . . . not tomorrow. Do not let us push things off into some indefinite future so that we can continue to live justified lives in the face of injustice because we can make good excuses for our inactivity.

Our daily bread . . . so that each person in the world may have enough food, enough clean water, enough clean air, adequate health care, and sufficient access to education so as to have the sustenance for a healthy life. Teach us to give from our sustenance and not just from our surplus.

And forgive us our trespasses . . . forgive us our blindness toward our neighbor, our self-pre-occupation, our racism, our sexism, and our incurable propensity to worry about ourselves and our own. Forgive us our capacity to watch the evening news and do nothing about it.

As we forgive those who trespass against us . . . help us to forgive those who victimize us. Help us to mellow out in spirit, to not grow bitter with age, to forgive the imperfect parents and systems that wounded, cursed, and ignored us.

And do not put us to the test . . . do not judge us only by whether we have fed the hungry, given clothing to the naked, visited the sick, or tried to mend the systems that victimized the poor. Spare us this test for none of us can stand before your gospel scrutiny. Give us, instead, more days to mend our ways, our selfishness, and our systems.

But deliver us from evil . . . that is, from the blindness that lets us continue to participate in anonymous systems within which we need not see who gets less as we get more.” (Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, pp 189-191).