September 2, 2018
Homily for the Fifthteen Sunday after Pentecost – Christ Church – September 2, 2018
Song of Songs 2: 8-13
James 1: 17-27
Mark 7: 1-23
Divinity is associated with light in many religions, if not all. In the Letter of James, we hear about the “Father of lights” in whom “there is no shadow” and from whom “all good giving” and “all perfect gifts” come. Father means “origin”, not a person. The author wants to say that, beyond all things, there is one single source for all things. This is the origin of the great physical lights (sun, moon, stars) as well as the spiritual lights (the light of the intellect, the light of wisdom and discernment). All of these are gifts to humanity, not something deserved or to be taken for granted. To be alive in this physical body, under the sun and the moon and the stars, and to be alive in our minds and in our spirit, is something that causes amazament to us and is for us a source of deep thankfulness, when we are not blinded by the sicknesses of the soul that James talks about and the Lord Jesus enumerates even more specifically in our Gospel passage.
The Gospel of Mark places on lips of Jesus a list that is not at all specific to Jesus himself, but is rather a common list of sins: sexual misconduct, stealing, murder, greediness, etc. with the point being that those things come from inside people, they travel from their heart as “little bad thoughts” that grow and then, at some point, explode on the outside in the form of bad words and bad actions. James talks mostly about anger as the root of all unbalance and the root of “the growth of wickedness” in the soul. All of this makes us turn inside, make us wallow in our own emotional morass, instead of opening up to receive God's gifts: the gift of our bodily and mental life, and the supreme gift of God's teachings, which James calls “the law of freedom” to underline that they do not exists to make us behave correctly, but to free us from our stupidity and make us whole.
If we keep thinking of God as a father-person, we run the risk of behaving like children who are afraid of punishment because they have not followed the rules; rules which children do not understand and perceive as harsh and punitive. On the contrary, when we understand that the expression “Father” in the New Testament indicates the unfathomable Origin of all things, beyond all things, we might be able to stand up like adults and receive the whole world into ourselves as a gift, including God's teachings understood for what they truly are: a medicine that can purify the depths of our heart. So we will have a religion not made of external observances, such as going to church on Sunday and calling oneself Christian, but a pure religion which, as James points out, is pretty much the opposite of what “pure religion” means to most people. Now, as then, “pure religion” can be taken to mean a group of people who perceive themselves as right and tend to exclude others whom they perceive as not good enough. This attitude is implicitly critized by Jesus in our Gospel passage, while James makes explicit the point that pure religion exists when the ones who are most in need are being helped and the believers keep out of the confusion engendered by anger, with all that derives from it.
Does such “pure religion”, in the sense identified by James, exist today? It is up to us to make it exist. Welcoming God's gifts is not just a formula, it can be something very real and concrete: welcoming one's body, welcoming one's intellect, welcoming one's friends and family, welcoming plants, trees, and animals, welcoming the days and the nights, welcoming one's brothers and sisters in the faith. Are we interested in passing from the religion of anger and mental confusion to the religion of welcoming?
James, like Paul, talks about a new birth of the human race. We might ask ourselves if such new birth has ever happened. 2000 years have passed since the Gospel of Mark and the Letter of James were written, and their description of the malady of humanity rings more true than ever. However, it is up to us to stay within a traditional and purely institutional understanding of Christianity, or to take the plunge and try the experiment again. As another author of the first century stated, God has spoken many times to humanity and “now” is speaking through Jesus Christ. Christianity is nothing else than an experiment to see if the Word of Truth, implanted in humanity like a seed, shall finally take roots and flourish. This Word of Truth has the power to lead humanity from anger to meekness, from narcissistic selfishness to deep listening of each other. We know how liberating it can be “to speak our own truth”. Often we still have to learn that it can be equally liberating to hear others “speak their own truth”. These small truths are part of the truth eternal, the Word of God, which we find enshrined in the Bible, but is also present in our everyday dealings with each other, if we listen.
It is time. Now, as always, it is time for us to listen to the Beloved. Not to the God that we imagine, the Father-in-the-sky who sets moral rules for us to follow, but the divinity who is unafraid to speak to us through the words of an erotic song. “The time for singing has come”. If we keep lamenting that the religion of Jesus has not yet come on earth, this is the time for us to listen. This time, like any time, is the good time. The Beloved looks into our sheltered soul. He does not want to shatter anything. He looks through the lattice and whisphers: “Arise! Wake up! Enjoy my gifts!”. Amen.