Church people aren’t familiar with the Song of Solomon, which might help them understand romance, tenderness, and intimacy – and in a canonical context, if there is such a thing. I love it that the romance involved is about yearning more than possession – and just as we’ve lost the yearning for God, we’ve lost what it is to yearn for another. Romeo & Juliet still got it: “Parting is such sweet sorrow” – but he goes home. In a remake of such a moment today, he’d climb up the trellis and they would get it on. With God: it’s not the possession, but the chase, the absence, the longing. We need a revival of the Cappadocians.
I had the privilege of sitting in a small doctoral seminar with Roland Murphy, who was then writing his Hermeneia commentary on the Song. We dissected the original love poems, and he invited us then to explore profound theological reflections from Origen, Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux. They preached on the Song, as we might. It’s about relationships among lovers – which the church is prudish or silent about; and by allegorical extension, it’s about believers (really the church) and God.
Today we are extraordinarily blessed by not one but two fabulous commentaries on the Song that hear the human romance but simultaneously the dance of God with God’s people: Paul Griffiths (Brazos) and Robert Jenson (Interpretation) – both simply delicious, provocative reads. Jenson (with a Barthian flair) counters the idea that we know human love and therefore can infer things about divine love: “Just the other way around… Human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.”
All of this could prompt a lovely, thoughtful, artistic sermon, nothing prosaic, a bit of a tease but on solid foundations in our tradition: we can hear God but can’t see God; we yearn for God’s coming; we look for small hints and glimpses, the openings of Scripture or worship, which let the light in our self-walled-in lives – and the instruments of death are transformed into homes for life. And it’s deeply emotional, thrilling, cutting to the core of your being. I’m going to have to do that long series on the Song of Solomon that I’ve dreamed of since graduate school.
But for this Labor Day Sunday, I’m going with James. I understand questions around authorship, but am fully persuaded (as I deeply wish to be!) by Richard Bauckham (maybe the smartest guy I’ve known) who makes the case that this James is the brother of our Lord. When skeptics tell me Christianity is hogwash, my best counter is that his brother, who could easily say He’s just a guy, believe me, he stole my toys and got to drive the donkey cart before I did… became an apostle, a leader of the church, losing his life because of his firm belief that Jesus was the Messiah, his brother but really God’s Son, raised from the dead.
James 1:17-27 is a bountiful text, beginning with lavish praise of God’s goodness. The NRSV confounds me: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above”? The NIV (which a friend jokingly calls the “nearly infallible version”), “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” is good, and the RSV is better in terms of the Greek: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The CEB, of which I’m no fan, performs well here: “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.”
The preaching points in this one verse are many. God’s lordship of the stars, sun and moon counter pagan religions which saw astral objects as deities. St. Francis’s Canticle understood how his intimate relationship with God forged an intimate bond with him and all creation: “Brother Sun… Sister Moon.” The primary debunking of pagan religion though comes in James 1:17’s insistence that only good comes from God. Researching my Will ofGod book, I was stunned at how many lay people hear so many preachers trying to explain why God does evil things – giving us cancer, causing car wrecks, shoving you into a broken marriage, all for trumped up, theologically stupid and perilous reasons. The truth on this must be reiterated, over and over and over. God is good, all the time. And God is not moody or capricious, like the pagan deities. Kate Bowler has eloquently reiterated all this in Everything Happens for a Reason, and other Lies I've Loved.
After regaling God’s immense, reliable goodness, Jesus’ brother shifts in verse 19 from words about God to human words. How do we talk? Doesn’t the church, now, in this hostile political climate, need a primer on how Christians talk? And even on what feelings they nurse in their souls? Anger is not of God, and becomes a barbed wire barrier between us and God. Being slow to speak might mean we listen, not reckoning with what to say next, but really listening – and maybe switching off our gadgets so we can be “quick to hear” others and God.
Verse 21 speaks of “putting away” or “ridding ourselves” of all this junk. The Greek very, apotithemi, means literally to take off your clothing. I’m reminded of the early church’s baptismal practice of the converted shedding their old, dirty work clothes, descending into the pool for baptism, then emerging to be clothed in a pure white robe. I’m also wondering if the change might actually be clothing! St. Francis changed his clothes when he got serious about following Jesus. What do we wear, or not wear, out of our devotion to Jesus?
And there’s that great moment when a wealthy Hindu woman came to Mother Teresa offering aid. During the conversation, she admitted how much she loved beautiful saris; in fact, she spent 800 rupees each month on a new sari. Mother Teresa, whose distinctive white cotton sari with a blue stripe cost 8 rupees, thought this the place to begin. “Next time, when you go to buy a sari, instead of buying a sari for 800 rupees, you buy a sari worth 500 rupees and with the remaining 300 you buy saris for the poor people.” More than the shifting of money was at stake; the elegance of a sari was a symbol of a woman’s status, her notch in the caste system. But the woman did it, and over time came down to paying just 100 rupees for her sari, giving the rest away. Teresa urged her, “Please do not go below 100!”
One of the highest compliments I ever received was from a church member who said “Your tombstone should say ‘Be doers of the word, not hearers only.’” We do live in a culture where we get both halves wrong. Some do and do but never get close to Jesus’ heart; others are swooningly spiritual but don’t engage with people in need at all. Jesus’ brother says to be (or really “become” – the Greek is ginesthe, implying continuous doing or becoming) doers.
This rankled Martin Luther, who dubbed James the “epistle of straw.” I’d counter by saying straw has its important uses – including perhaps in the manger where the baby Jesus was laid. Richard Bauckham explored the seeming but insubstantial conflict between James and Paul by saying “When James says that justification is by works he does not have in mind at all the works of self-reliance which compromise faith. Beneath the surface of disagreement, there is a deeper agreement…” He imagines a conversation between James and Paul: “There would be much nodding of heads and smiling agreement, as well as some knitting of brows and some exclamations of surprise.”
The Gospel, Mark 7:1-23, with all this about handwashing (which really is pretty important) and dishwashing (also important) – and his thought that “Nothing outside can defile,” which is patently false: all this leaves me baffled over how to generate a reasonable sermon. I’ll stick with his brother, or that love poetry.