Lectionary Commentary

August 30, 2009
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 17

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]

Song of Solomon 2:8-14 (adding v.14)
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s lectionary readings inspire reflection on holistic and embodied approaches to theology, spirituality, and ethics. What would congregational life be like if we were to “come with joy” (Brian Wren) expecting to encounter wonder and beauty in one another whenever we gathered for worship, study, service, or congregational decision-making? Today’s readings challenge “buzz kill theologies” of the left and the right, which presume (always) to know what’s best and to enforce, subtle or directly, certain joy-less codes of conduct as essential to the life of faith.

Song of Solomon 2:8-14 (I have added verse 14 to the lectionary reading in order to include a holistic, embodied touch to the passage) describes the intersection of “wonderful words of life” and “wonderful words of love.” Song of Solomon is great reading in both the sanctuary and the bedroom, for both are “thin places” that can inspire a theology and spirituality of joy. The lesson of Song of Solomon is simply to rejoice in life and love. Discover God in a lover’s touch as well as in holy reading. This moment is a holy moment of ecstasy, revealing God’s ecstatic creativity in our lives. As wisdom literature, Song of Solomon revels in the cosmological love song of Proverbs 8, “wholly-creative wisdom,” ever God’s delight, brings forth creation in delight, playfulness, and love.

Some commentators have noted that many persons today are “ecstasy deprived” and, one of the least ecstatic places people can imagine is the church and its worship. Yes, faith is serious business at times, but it is also joyful, exhilarating, sensual, and uniting. Perhaps, making war represents our inability to make love – in worship, in holy relationships, in friendship, and in parenting. If the heavens declare the glory of God and everything that breathes praises God, there’s little room for spiritual killjoys. Divine love, aimed at beauty of experience, moves our spirits, the stars above, and the homeward flight of geese.

The Psalmist surely knows that conducting the affairs of state is hard work, but just for today, on the ruler’s wedding day, “let’s party!” counsels the liturgist and “let’s celebrate!” proclaims the rabbi. Rejoice in the beauty of young and old, in the wedding night to come, in children playfully running down church aisles, and in the laughter of self-transcendence that reminds us that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

James the teacher gives us certain “rules” of community, but, like the Rule of Benedict, their goal is not obedience for its own sake but behavior that brings health and joy to community life, behavior that enables us to joyfully and wonderfully see Christ in ourselves and one another. In many ways, James gives us an ethics beauty and joy. Words that, at first glance, could be construed as “theological buzz kill” actually inspire “theological celebration”: “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the [Parent] is this: to care for widows and orphans in distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Caring for widows and orphans is a labor of love – we care for them not only that they might live, as Whitehead notes, but live well and live better. Freed from survival issues, they can enjoy the fruits of relationship and culture; they can appreciate song and poetry. Now, being “unstained,” at first glance, reminds us of the “church lady” on “Saturday Night Live,” but the question the word “unstained” raises is “what world should we be uncontaminated by?” Today, we might say, the world of consumerism, addictive behaviors, objectification, and materialism for its own sake. The issue is not “whoever dies with the most toys wins,” but which one “enjoys playing the game.” As one of my teachers David Griffin once asserted, “God wants us to enjoy; God wants all of us to enjoy.” Enjoyment is grounded in generosity, companionship, and mutuality.

Grounded in the graceful and abundant generosity of God (James 1:17), James presents us with a vision an interdependent community that inspires an ethic of relationship, beauty, and love. To be “doers of the word” is to live by our vision of the “beloved community” in which every family is affirmed as holy and supported so that it might be healthy. Anger, gossip, back-biting, and greed, destroy community and add to the woes of the world. Listening, honest affirming, and sharing, increase the joy of life. As we discovered last week, words can be transformative, and James counsels us, even when we must challenge another’s viewpoint or behavior, to speak words of gentleness, care, and love.

James gives us an “ethics of experience,” in which ethical behavior is judged on whether it contributes to beauty and value of experience, enjoyment of experience, whether human, non-human, or divine. When religious norms diminish vitality and life-experience, they need to be questioned in light of the celebrative ethics of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.

Perhaps, today’s preacher might encourage a “readers’ theatre” approach to Mark 7. Imagine the scene, after a day of healing and teaching, the disciples at table, tearing joyfully and ravenously into their evening meal, laughing and joking, savoring good food, enjoying the taste of fine wine, and in such joyful company, with Jesus celebrating with them, experiencing the “relaxation response.” Maybe, Jesus also joyfully omitted washing his hands in the spirit of the occasion. Then, in scene two, observe the theological killjoys, muttering among themselves, “Look at them, enjoying themselves, and they didn’t even pray, they didn’t observe proper ritual. Boy, they’re in for it. And, worse yet, look at Jesus; he’s no spiritual leader, he’s going along with the fun.”
 I once remember a minister, at his performance review, being criticized for smiling too much in the pulpit. His joy at worship seemed to disrupt the “decent order” some members expected from the worship of God. But, good worship and healthy ethics is about the balance of order and novelty, and structure and freedom; not the obedience to rules for the sake of obedience. Jesus is less worried about outward behavior that deviates from religious norms than an attitude of heart that picks fights, judges others, and sacrifices joy to good behavior. The epistle of James and Mark’s gospel suggest a practice of theological or spiritual mindfulness, motivated by the desire to share abundant life and, in so doing, add to the beauty and the love of the world.”
 I recall a humorous statement addressed to overly-involved helpers. When a visitor asked where the helper was, it was pointed out that he should “look for the one with the frown!” Can our efforts for universal health care, ecological transformation, and global peace, be embracing rather than alienating; refreshing rather than depleting; joyful rather than dour? Can we experience joy in the journey toward justice?

This brings us back to the Song of Solomon and the ecstasy of lovers in the springtime of the year. Shall we “skip” to church today, or invite our congregations to reclaim touch as healing and holy, rather than harmful or alienating? (For more on the healing power of touch, see Bruce Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice; and Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus.) Shall we learn the healing power of laughter (Norman Cousins, The Anatomy of an Illness) and the multi-sensory joy of experiencing “lived omnipresence?” Shall our houses of worship become altars of joyful transformation that inspire joyful mission to the world, for “joy to the world, our beloved comes?”

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor with Kate Epperly of Disciples United Community Church (www.ducc.us), a progressive, process-oriented, open and affirming congregation in Lancaster, PA. Bruce is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (a spiritual alternative for group and personal spiritual formation to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life) and the soon to be released Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly. He may be contacted at bepperly@lancasterseminary.edu.