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Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Song of Solomon 2:8-13 AND Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 OR Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 AND Psalm 15:1-5, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

What is love? It’s a central question of life and it’s a central question of faith. The answers range from the mystical and romantic to the practical. We want to bask in shared love that moves every nerve and hormone. We are also aware that love means doing things for the one we love, practical things, things that sustain the other in body and spirit, that further the other’s goals.

In Fiddler on the Roof there is a poignant song entitled “Do you love me?” Golde and Tevye are have a daughter getting ready for marriage—a marriage in which her husband to be apparently loves her. It causes Tevye to reflect for a moment. He turns to Golde and asks, “Do you love me?” Golde responds, “You’re a fool.” Tevye acknowledges that that is true, saying, “But do you love me?”

Here’s Golde’s response: “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow.” They talk about how scared they were on their wedding day, Tevye remembering, “But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other. And now I'm asking, Golde, ‘Do you love me?’” “I'm your wife,” she says. “I know, but do you love me?” She turns aside in remembrance, “Do I love him?  For twenty-five years I've lived with him, fought him, starved with him, twenty-five years my bed is his. If that's not love, what is?” Tevye looks at her, “Then you love me?” “I suppose I do,” Golde says, to which Tevye response, “And I suppose I love you too.”

Song of Solomon (sometimes called just “Song of Songs”) is a song of romantic love, sometimes treated as a parable about God’s Love. Many scholars see it as coming from a later era, perhaps a collection of many love poems used in worship. I’ve even seen it attributed to a female author. Certainly the voice of love in the poem or poems is feminine. Maybe it’s a great hymn to the power of love, included because some thought it illumined their understanding of Solomon, who, we are told in I Kings, chapter 11:1, “loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women . . .” “I am black and beautiful,” the woman declares in Song of Solomon 1:5. Is there a possible reference here to the Queen of Sheba? She and Solomon were obviously somewhat in awe of each other.

Psalm 45 which has some of the same passion says to the king, “You are the most handsome of men . . . your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia . . . daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor,” concluding with these words, “at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir,” Ophir possibly being a reference to Africa.

Whatever the era, whoever the beloved, we have in Song of Solomon a sensuous poem about love, reaching its pinnacle perhaps in chapter eight, verses six and seven: “ . . . love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.” One can even wonder whether there is a caution here about the power of love. Three times we find these words of warning: “ . . . do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” (Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5, & 8:4) If this comes during a time when the people felt separated from God, longing for a new era of closeness, is this a word counseling patience?

Whatever we do with this strange work, it appeals to those of us who want to be held in the arms of a God who pursues us with unconditional and passionate love. But is that enough?

The rest of the readings point us to the actions that are appropriate for those who want to please the one who loves them—the simple acts Golde remembers performing for Tevye as a demonstration of her love. Scripture, and people of faith, have not been shy in spelling out what those acts should be—often in a legalistic manner. If you don’t do these things, you are not worthy of divine love. You cannot receive its benefits, certainly not bask in it for eternity. The reading from Deuteronomy seems to take such a hard line. “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God . . . You must observe them diligently.” (Deuteronomy 4:2 & 6) In Psalm 15, it is “those who walk blamelessly” who may abide on God’s holy hill. (Psalm 15:1-2)

For those of us who want to be a little less legalistic, there are still things to notice in these two readings. The passage from Deuteronomy ends with an emphasis upon not forgetting the things that have provided a foundation in our lives and making them known to our children and our children’s children. (Deuteronomy 4:9) Part of the passing of life from one generation to the next is conversation about the things that have given our lives meaning.

In Psalm 15 it is interesting to see how “right” behavior is defined: speaking truth from the heart, not slandering, being respectful of friends and neighbors, not lending money at interest or taking bribes. “Those who do such things will never be moved.” (Psalm 15:2-3 & 5) The actions we do in the name of love are not rigid and narrow. They are intended to build healthy relationships of truth and justice in the world around us.

James, who calls us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers” (James 1:22), talks about being “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger,” bridling our tongues. (vss. 19 & 26) Then he offers this definition of “religion that is pure and undefiled before God . . .: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (vs. 27) There’s plenty of room for debate and interpretation, but, in general, I see not a rigid legalism, but compassionate service. Indeed, later in this short epistle we find these words: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:12-17)

Love is not just a warming of the heart inwardly; it is the outward expression of a warm heart. When Peter responded to Jesus that he did truly love him, Jesus said, “Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” (See John 21:15-17) Love is found in both a passionate embrace and in compassionate inclusion in the name of peace and justice.

The Gospel reading from Mark comes at it from another perspective. Sometimes we do the right things but are not acting out of love Perhaps it is simply but habit, or maybe seeking credit. Who knows what our motives are? T.S. Eliot, in Murder in the Cathedral, defines “the highest form of treason” in this way: “to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Mark tells the story of an encounter involving Jesus, his disciples, and some of the Pharisees, in which this issue comes to focus in traditions of cleanliness. There were legalistic definitions of cleanliness not followed by some of Jesus’ disciples. (Mark 7:1-4) When his disciples are criticized, Jesus uses it as an occasion to once again, call the critics “hypocrites.” “This people,” he says, “honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (vss. 5-6) In Matthew 23:25-26 he puts it this way: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”

In this week’s reading from Mark, Jesus points out that what is in the heart and what comes out are related. “ . . . there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these things come from within.” (Mark 7:21-23)

In terms of today’s topic, if there is no love in the heart, how can truly loving acts come out? Experiencing and giving love involves both inward mystery and intimacy and outward behavior and service.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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