Preached on 30 August 2015 at St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, Tacoma, WA
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year B
We all live our theology. We live our lives, make decisions, and act based on what we believe in our hearts, what we trust deep in our soul, to be true about God and how the world works.
Then there’s the theology we profess, the theology of our mind; what we think and say about God. This is the theology we talk about and read about. It may be the theology we were taught or what we have learned from Scripture or preaching or from other people’s experiences or stories. What we think about God may be shaped by any number of influences. It is often the theology we use to judge – especially to judge other people or ourselves.
Sometimes (maybe most of the time) the theology of our mind is very different from the theology of our heart and soul. In fact, they may even be entirely different gods.
One of the purposes of a community of faith is to help one another move toward that place where the theology we profess and the theology we live are one and the same. Our three readings this morning address that tension. They are interesting texts to have in conversation with each other.
First of all, this morning marks a transition in the lectionary. In the Old Testament, until now, we have been hearing narrative history. Today, we change genre; for the next couple of months, we will be immersed in the Wisdom literature, beginning with love poetry from the Song of Solomon or The Song of Songs.
In the New Testament, we will spend the next month or so in the letter of James. And in the gospel, we’re back in the gospel of Mark where we will stay until the end of the church year.
Let’s start with the Song of Songs. The whole book is a series of love poems and never once mentions God. This morning we hear an excerpt from one of the poems. What does it reveal about the nature of God? Well, – that God is revealed through all of life, not just through prophets and sages and theophany – where God makes a personal appearance, so to speak. It reveals that God created us for love; to love one another and take delight in each other and our bodies. God’s desire for us is goodness and joy; delight and love. God’s desire for us is life; fullness of life, abundance of life.
Some see in this book an allegory for God and Israel – one that counters the god as wronged husband and Israel as the adulterous wife found in some of the prophets. Here we see God’s desire for a relationship with humanity that is full of love and life and mutual delight.
Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the gospel. Jesus is challenging the Pharisees who ask why some of the disciples don’t follow the tradition of the elders; that they should wash before eating. There is nothing wrong with the practice itself – Jesus challenges how it is used – not to nurture a relationship with God but to judge others and berate them. He goes on to give an example of a tradition that appears to be good but is sometimes used as an excuse to neglect parents in their old age, disobeying the commandment to honor your father and mother.
Then there’s James. At first glance, James seems to contradict what Jesus has said. “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers,” he writes. Is it all about practice to James?
If we look a little deeper, though, we see that Jesus and James are offering very similar ideas.
How we live; what we do matters. What comes out of our hearts matters – whether it’s thieving or generous giving; adultery or caring for orphans and widows.
This is what defiles us – draws us away from God – or draws us closer to God. Jesus offers a long, though far from comprehensive, list of actions that defile.
James reminds us that God, the “Father of lights” gives us “every perfect gift” so that we may be doers of the word of truth which God implants in us.
What comes from the heart is directly related to what goes into our hearts. This is where Christian formation comes in – Practicing Christian living, Christian virtues until they become a way of life. It takes practice. I have to admit, all kinds of maxims, proverbs and clichés come to mind.
It might be helpful to ask ourselves some questions at this point. What do your actions reveal about what you believe in your heart about God? How is that different from the theology you profess? Where do you think the truth lies? What would you do differently if you believed what you say or think about God?
Rituals and traditions and sacraments are all important practices for Christian formation. But practices for their own sake can become trivial or judgmental – which is what Jesus was challenging. Why do we do what we do – our rituals and customs? How do they form us for the kingdom of God? How do they help us live more authentically? How do they shape our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of God in Christ?
Remember the Song of Songs? How does our practice – how we live our lives draw us into that kind of life with each other and with God?
Christian formation is a lot more than rituals and customs. It forms a way of life.
Richard Rohr put it this way, “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” That means we may have to do what may feel uncomfortable, awkward, or even disingenuous to begin with – practicing until it feels natural and genuinely comes from the heart, just like you would practice any new skill; from practicing piano scales to your golf swing. Changing our practice may change our heart and change our thinking.
Think about a little child. We teach our children to say “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” The words themselves don’t instantly create a grateful or penitent person. However, it gives them language for and gradually, they will learn gratitude and repentance.
God has already given us every good gift. As we practice using them, God’s grace working in us shapes our hearts and minds so that we may be doers of the word and not only hearers. So that we don’t forget who we are when we look away from the mirror.
We are children of God; we are God’s beloved.