Proper 17b 2015: the voice of my beloved

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s texts are about who we are and what we do. Look in a mirror, James writes, and see who we are. The admonishment is that we look, see, and forget the moment that we turn away.

For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.

Religion is about doing; religion is a verb. As much as I am convicted by those words, there is truth in them. It is one thing to talk about prayer. It is quite another to be quiet for a time each day, to devote any number of moments to listening to God. God waits to hear from us! Are we thinking about our faith, or are we practicing it?

In 1517, Martin Luther, not King, but the Martin Luther of very early Protestant faith, nailed 95 theses, challenges to the Roman church, to the door of Wittenberg castle’s church. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The rest of the theses mostly expanded on these ideas and attacked the corrupted practice of selling indulgences to absolve sin. (Please let’s talk about indulgences sometime.) As Episcopalians we might agree at least somewhat with Martin Luther. We believe, of course, in repenting of our sins – we do so almost every week. There is room in our tradition for individual confession and for a process that we call “the rite of reconciliation.” Being reconciled with God is very much part of our belief system.

I suspect that we could have a lively conversation about faith, works, and the epistle of James. We know where Martin Luther stands: he wrote that the epistle of James is “an epistle of straw,” and that it has no place in New Testament canon. We are saved completely and totally by God’s grace, Luther would say. We are at God’s mercy – and merciful God is! We human beings cannot “save” grace, hoard it, amass it, or assign it to another person. Grace belongs to God. Grace is given to us, not by what we do, works, by through our faith alone. Do we disagree yet? Probably not. But Martin Luther has walked out of the room and we are still talking…

Because

Because something happens when we live our faith; we are transformed. We might find ourselves living our faith in the way that James describes. We might

“care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Yes, caring for others is doing, but James also tells us where the impetus to do something comes from:

7Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Our reaching out beyond ourselves comes from God. “Every generous act of giving” comes from God. Giving comes beyond ourselves. Every good thing that we do comes not only from within ourselves, but first from God.

So to Martin Luther, we say that yes, we are saved by the grace of God alone. Nothing that we can do will save us. We can neither be so good or so bad that God will turn away from us. Saving is unimaginably beyond our power and our comprehension. Saving is from God alone through Jesus Christ in God’s way – not ours.

However, Mr. Luther, we might also say that when we are spending time with God, living our faith and not only talking about it, good works, good things, reaching beyond ourselves will bubble up and “spring forth” from within us. We will be that delighted, that indebted, that honored to share the joy that is in us through Jesus Christ. Our faith might call us to live in a way that brings us closer to God, so in some way there is God-movement in our days. You might call that works. We know that what we do will not get us into heaven. We do know that, right? Living in faith is about thanksgiving. We respond to the tremendous love that God has for us – so much love, in fact, that God created us. Living in thanksgiving for God and for our lives is not always easy. Some days it is harder to remember God above us, around us, within us than others … (right?)

James reminds us:

“let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

“The implanted word,” God alone, has the power to save our souls. It is that power that changes our souls along the way. The way we live is in joyful response to what we have been given.

Try something with me. Think for a minute about you might describe God. What is the essence of God? Ready? We’ll get quiet for a minute or two; think about the very essence – being – core – of God. (Go!)

Share if you will, a few of you: what is the essence of God? How might you describe God?
(this is the congregational participation part!)

Ready for the next part? (Please say yes!) Settle back, take a breath or two (Catherine, repeat some of the words that were given)

Your very best friend in the whole world was created in the image of God. You, too, were created in the image of God. You are created in the image of God. “God created humankind in God’s image.” Genesis, chapter 1. Before we know much about anything else in the bible, we know that God creates and that we have been created in God’s image.

In that light, from that viewpoint, the Song of Solomon is about God’s love for us. It has other meanings, too – about human love, yes – and if we don’t apply it too strictly, it is also about God’s love for us: each of us is the voice of God’s beloved. We are loved that much. You are God’s beloved child.

The voice of my beloved! …
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

I started out today by saying that today’s readings are about who we are and what we do. They are also about whose we are.

We are God’s beloved children.

We are wonderfully made, created perfectly – with all of our imperfections – in God’s image.

Our inspiration, our life, our gifts – come from God.

How does it feel to be so loved?

That is my prayer for us this day: that we know the love of God, who made us in God’s image. You are God’s beloved.

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