Year B — Proper 17 (the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for September 2, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Plato is said to have remarked: “At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.”

The Song of Songs is known as the erotic thriller of the Hebrew Bible, and is a great place to look when it comes to understanding the ways of the heart. 

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus quotes Isaiah (who is, of course, quoting God) by referring to the phrase: “…their hearts are far from me.” Perhaps a little brush-up with the song can awaken, in all of us, the kind of love for God and others that leaps upon mountains and bounds over hills!

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
This is a very “scentual” psalm — fragrances everywhere!

As with the king, so for all of us; our ultimate source of success is God. It is God’s throne that endures forever, God’ scepter that is equitable. A good psalm for election season!

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Slippery minds is a condition that we are all prone to. “I forgot,” becomes something of a mantra for us, especially when there are literally thousands of images, sounds, and bits of data blowing through our heads each day.
  • “Did you pick up the cleaning on the way home, dear?” I forgot.
  • “Did you send my mother the flowers for her birthday?” I forgot.
  • “Did you help Molly with her algebra before she fell asleep last night?” I forgot.

Moses wants to encourage the Hebrews NOT to forget the mighty acts of God that they have witnessed, nor to let slip from their minds the commandments God has set before them. 

Great check-in possibility for us, as we try to encourage one another from week to week: “Hey, did you do your best to love God and your neighbor this week?” I remembered!

Psalm 15
Speaking of God’s commandments, Psalm 15 makes a nifty sort of “pocket version” of the law — God’s Will for Dummies, maybe?

Pull out this list for a quick review before heading out each day; it’s bound to help!

James 1:17-27
We’ve been playing a sort of game in the Young Adult Bible study class that I teach on Sundays; we try not to let each other get away with using “churchy words” when talking about our faith. 

The game is called, “Ah! Ah! Ah!” — and is accompanied by a dramatic finger-wag, as in, “Ah, ah, ah! You can’t just say ‘I was blessed….’ Tell us what you really mean!”

Reading the letter from James is always a bit bracing; James does not allow much “phoney-baloney” language about faith. For James, every good gift that we receive in our lives is seen as a gift from God. He calls us to live responsibly with those gifts.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
So, so easy to see the crap going on in another person’s life, right? And hard to detect the malodorous stench of our own foibles.

The gospel for today calls us to think a little less about what’s on the outside, and a bit more about what happens on the inside of our lives. What kind of thoughts, purposes, motives do we harbor? Where is it that we are empty on the inside, searching for things that will fill us from the outside? And, most importantly, what WILL fill us up — make us whole?

(If you don’t know the contemporary hymn, “In Christ Alone,” you can check it here on YouTube. I like it for the answer to this question.)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

This is a true story – you can’t make stuff like this up.  It happened in Charlotte, NC.  A man bought a box of very expensive cigars.  He protected his investment by taking out an insurance policy on the cigars.  He insured them against; “decay, spoilage, theft and fire.”

In the next few weeks he proceeded to smoke all of the cigars in the box. then he filed a claim with his insurance company, stating that the cigars were lost in a series of small . . . .fires. Of course, the insurance company rejected the claim, which ended up in civil court.

Even though the man admitted smoking the cigars, he won the case because, . . .”the company declared the cigars insurable property, and did insure them against fire, and the Company failed to specify what sort of fire was excluded, therefore the claim is legitimate.”

The man collected $15,000. As he was leaving the courthouse, the man was arrested and charged with 24 counts of arson.  After all, he had confessed to setting “the series of small fires” which had caused his loss of property.  He was convicted and sentenced to 24 months in jail and was fined $24,000.  (News of the Weird)

Ever since God handed Moses the Ten Commandments on top of the mountain, there has been a  debate concerning the letter and the spirit of the law.   Both our text and my little cigar story point out the danger of following the letter of the law while violating its intent.

In our Gospel lesson it is important for us to remember that Jesus was a Jew, an observant Jew, a Jew who treasured the Law of God.  Jesus took the Pharisees to task for following the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.

We Christians tend to forget that the Law was given to the children of Israel as a gift, not a burden.  Thomas Cahill, in his wonderful book The Gifts of the Jews, reminds us of that fact.

“. . . in the prescriptions of Jewish Law we cannot but note a presumption that all people, even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions, but of the powerless and their poverty.”

This was something new, something unheard of in the ancient world, something that had not been seen in other religions or other codes of law.  Jewish Law was a gift to the Jews and to the world; a gift to remind us that our lives are sacred and so are the lives of everyone else.

The problem that Jesus confronts in this text is that the Pharisees chose to obey the rules without remembering the relationships that lie beneath the rules. If we are honest, we will admit that this is sometimes true of us as well. We make religious rules that are intended to help us live together as Godly people. Then, over time, we forget that the rules are there to help us, not to hurt us, in our relationships with each other in the community of Christ.

It’s been a while since I was over at the Car Collectors Museum in Nashville, TN.  There used to be a 1918 Dodge Touring Car on display there.  Its little placard told an interesting story.

In 1918, the father of Albert Hillyard bought this car for $785.  In 1921, Albert and his brother got into an argument over who got to drive the car into town on Saturday night.  Their father drove the car into the garage and shut the door. There the car remained until found 38 years later, covered with dirt and chicken manure, with only 1800 miles on the Odometer.

I’ve thought about Mr. Hillyard and his Dodge Touring Car many times over the years. He attempted to heal the breach between his children by making a rule when what was needed was reconciliation.  He said, “Okay, neither one of you gets to drive it!”  But I’m willing to bet that the boys just went on to argue about something else, and then about something else, and then about something else.  The car wasn’t the problem. The problem was the jealousy and strife that lived in that family and in those brother’s hearts.

So it is with all of us.  Since our problem lies within our hearts the healing must also start there.
Jesus calls us to understand that it’s not about the rules; it’s about the relationships; the relationship between us and God; and the relationships between us and each other.

That’s why Jesus says that the things that come out are what defile. And later for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.

Along these lines, St. Augustine said that there is a hole in our hearts that only God can fill,
that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. No amount of rules and regulations and guidelines can change our hearts.  Only God can do that.

Only God’s Spirit can move us that way.  Only the Cross of Christ;  only the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus can break our hearts enough that we will let the love of God flow in to change and reshape us.

Believe it or not, my first real job besides working on the farm with my family was as a daycare worker. Besides supervising the playground and changing diapers and serving lunch I had the great pleasure of watching Sesame Street every afternoon from four to five o’clock.  Seriously, it was a great pleasure; I really liked it.

One night recently I saw a documentary on the making of Sesame Street. Someone asked the producer about the reaction of the child actors to working with the Muppets, who are, after all, puppets with a human being crouched on the floor holding them up with one arm.

The producer said the kids don’t pay any attention to the humans; they just talk to the Muppets.
In fact, he said, there was one child who saw BIG BIRD take off his top half and an actor step out.
The child stared and then yelled to his mother, “Mom, Mom. Do you think Big Bird knows he has a man inside?”

The goal of the law is to remind us that we have a human being inside, in our hearts, in our souls, in our center of being; in that part of us that makes us something other than a thinking animal.

The law also reminds us that other people have that hidden humanity, that heart, soul, mind; that center that belongs to God, as well. Our calling is to remember that broken center in our dealings with each other.  It is our calling to remember that we are called to transcend the rules in the name of love.  It is our calling to remember that not only did Jesus die for us, but Jesus died for everybody so that we could all be reconciled to God and to one another. It is our calling to spread this gracious Good News throughout the world, beginning with our own hearts.

Amen and amen.

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