Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Our Sermon for September 2nd, 2018: Arise and Do the Word, Song of Songs 2:8-13 and James 1:17-27
Arise and Do the Word
Growing up, I don’t think I ever heard a sermon preached from the book of James. To be honest, I may have forgotten. I don’t really remember many sermons from when I was a kid, so maybe this is me being forgetful. But, really, I don’t remember hearing something specific from this book until I was in college. That’s when I learned about another part of James. It’s over in chapter 2. In a book that is very concerned with exhorting Christians to fully living out their faith, chapter 2, verse 17 makes it plain: Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead. I heard this sermon in the context of the small, Christian work-study college that I attended. Not only was work celebrated as a way to learn and contribute to the community, but service was part of the equation, too. We were taught not to live only for ourselves, but in service to our communities. The scripture I told you about from chapter 2 was one of the scriptures my teachers pointed to. Today’s reading from chapter 1, where the auther encourages us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, was another one. This author, who says his name is James but it’s not clear which James, feels that true faith, a living faith, is reflected in our actions. This reading describes some of actions of a living faith.
According to scholar Dr. Margaret Aymer, today’s reading is best understood as three chunks of advice for living a Christian life. After acknowledging that all good things come from God, James tells us how to live like we know we should be thankful. Be slow to anger and slow to speak, but quick to listen. Short-fuses are signs that one is shaped by the world and not God. Second, be doers, not just hearers. Live like your faith has changed you. And three, exhibit how you are shaped by God by caring for the ones who need it most, and making sure your speech reflects your faith. If we follow this advice, we will be living what scholar Sharyn Dowd called “a life of single-minded devotion to God,” one that James understood to be shaped by the Gospel.
Since college, I’ve learned one thing that might explain why I don’t remember hearing much about James growing up. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther didn’t like James at all and I grew up in a Lutheran denomination. His opinions on the text have long influeced Christians. Luther called James “an epistle of straw.” He even went on to say that there was “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” Now, what on earth could he have found so problematic about this book on Christian lifestyle that he would say that it contains nothing of the Gospel? Martin Luther, who emphasized the grace part of Christian faith, was deeply suspicious of anyone, even someone who wrote part of the Bible, who might be read to say that one can earn salvation though good works. Luther said grace was freely given and our life of faith had little to do with the stuff we do to deserve grace.
The conflict over the relationship among faith, grace, and actions has continued well past the life of Martin Luther. Christians still have arguments about the tension between our faith and our actions. Many thoughtful people ask, what does it mean for me to live out my faith? Is it just about believing and going to church? Is it about shifting my own personal actions, choosing not to smoke or swear? What about our responsibilities to shape public policy in a way reflects these commitments to community, to hearing others, and to caring for neighbors? What does it mean to be a doer of the word? What does it mean to have a Christian faith that affects your whole life? I’m inclined to think James had a point. If Jesus’ message of love and justice is transformational. That means we will live differently after hearing it. Sure, we can’t buy our way into forgiveness. But, we don’t get to sit around feeling superior because we simply believe the right thing, either.
Funnily enough, our other reading for the day, this one from Song of Songs, a book also known as Song of Solomon, has also not been without controversy. I don’t know if you noticed when you heard it today, but this book is a love poem (well, a bunch of love poems). The voice shifts around. Sometimes it’s one partner talking about their beloved, strong in body, bounding over hills like a young stag. In other parts, the other partner says, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Sometimes there are groups of people who speak, but they are basically a chorus that props up the narrators. Most of the time, the poems are just talking about one thing: How these two people are in love, and they love each other a whole lot. When Tasha and I first bought rings to wear as a symbol of our commitment to each other, words from the Song of Songs were inscribed on them. Last year, when Bishop Michael Curry of the US Episcopal church preached the sermon at the royal wedding, it was a part of the Song of Songs that was his central preaching text. This book is a book of love poems, an unabashed celebration of romantic love, and some people are not comfortable with that.
I mean, it’s controversial in a couple different ways. Dr. Renita Weems, in her commentary on the book, notes that it’s one of only two books in the Bible that does not mention God. The other one is Esther, but Esther still talks about prayer and fasting, and religious rituals. Song of Songs doesn’t talk about any of that. It just talks about how great this couple is and narrates their search for each other in the city, and their encounters in a garden. Dr. Weems points out another unique feature of this book. The couple is probably a man and woman. What is interesting is that the woman in this couple is the primary narrator of their relationship. Another scholar, Alphonetta Wines, points out that she narrates 75% of these poems! According to Dr. Weems, “Nowhere else is scripture do the thoughts, imaginations, yearnings, and word of a woman predominate in a book as in the Song of Songs.” Dr. Wil Gafney also notes that the relationship between these two is pretty equitable. They have similar amounts of power and investment in the relationship. There is no evidence of either one of them exerting power over the other. This is a rare relationship in scripture, and, too often, the world.
Because people haven’t really known what to do with this biblical book that doesn’t mention God but does describe an intoxicating courtship, there have been a myriad of ways that people have suggested interpreting it. Dr. Weems said that the most common interpretation is to disregard them as love poems between two people and only treat them as an allegory, demonstrating how either God and Israel, in the Jewish tradition, or Christ and the church, in Christian tradition, are connected in a passionate, idealized relationship. Christianity, in particular, was shaped by ancient Greek traditions that were deeply suspicious of anything connected to the body and to feelings like romantic love. They would have had trouble reading this book as a simple celebration of loving relationship. It was safer to be passionate only about God. Everything else was unseemly.
The thing is, though, I think it’s important to read this scripture as a scripture about human love. It is a kind of love that we hope for. It is joyous and celebratory and respectful of one another. It is a love that is persistent, even when others don’t approve. The couple has to sneak around, and the narrator is even attacked once while searching for her beloved. And yet, they still love one another and seek each other out. In a time when political leaders, like our own governor, are asking the Supreme Court to keep it legal for LGBTQ people to be fired from their jobs because of who they love or because other people think they should present their gender differently, we need a bunch of love poems right in the middle of the Bible. We need to be reminded that love is part of our tradition and worthy of celebration, not punishment. We need the poems set in a garden to remind us of the garden of creation, where God made us and called us good. And, in a world where unequal, non-mutual, relationships are all too common, we need the example of this relationship as a model to follow because our relationships are best when they are joyous, equitable, and shared between two people with mutual interest. That is not something we just made up. That is a standard set forth right here in our Holy Scripture. We may not know exactly how these poems ended up in the Bible, but they are here. And we can learn from them.
Christian faith, if it’s anything like Christ, was never going to be without scandal. It was always going to push and rub and strain against the constraints of the oppressive world in which it develops. So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the places of conflict, like James and the Song of Songs, in our own tradition. The conflict is a sign of growth, a sign that we are taking these letters and poems seriously enough to be willing to be changed by them. That sounds like what James wanted. That we not just listen, but we figure out how to do the word, in all aspects of our lives: in our church, in our town, in our romantic relationships. May we hear the Spirit’s call and may we do the word with joy.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
David Frenchak, "Proper 17 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Sharyn Dowd, "James," Women's Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Margaret Aymer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3759
Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1402
Alphonetta Wines: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1402
Michael Curry: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love
Our Sermon for August 26th, 2018: The Cloud of the Lord, 1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11) 22-30, 41-43
1 Kings 8: (1,6,10-11) 22-30, 41-43
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lordout of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, ‘O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, “There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.” Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.
‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there”, that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.
‘Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.
The Cloud of the Lord: 1 Kings 8: (1,6,10-11) 22-30, 41-43
I am one of the few members of my family that has been able to travel to other countries for fun and for study, and not for military service. As I read today’s scripture from 1 Kings, I remembered one trip in particular. In 2006, three friends from college and I saved our pennies and dimes and went to Greece. We were inspired by one of their mothers. My friend Amanda’s mom, Maureen, had been a force of kindness and creativity in all our lives for several years at that point. She loved people fiercely and deeply. She was kind and funny. She always threw great parties. Maureen had also always loved this movie called Shirley Valentine. I won’t go into details about the plot, except to share one thing: Shirley goes to Greece.
When Maureen died after having been diagnosed with cancer, we decided that we should go to Greece, too. It seemed to be a good way to remember Maureen, who had not been able to make such a trip, while also spending some time with Amanda, and doing something we had all wanted to do. It ended up being an incredible trip. We saw ancient ruins and beautiful art. We bought tacky t-shirts and postcards and tried wine that tasted like Pinesol. We dressed up in our fanciest clothes and danced. We carried Maureen’s picture with us, too. She was with us, right in the midst of everything we were doing.
One of our day trips on the cruise was to the island of Patmos. That’s where John, not the Gospel of John but a different John, received the religious vision that became the book of Revelation. Now, Revelation is intense. It’s about a fire-y and terrifying end of the world. John had also been exiled to Patmos, probably because of his religious beliefs. Given what I knew about the history of Revelation, I guess I expected the island to be kind of dour and depressing. I mean, it was a place to send someone to exile and a place where someone had bloody religious visions. It was bound to be unpleasant, right? Church, I am happy to tell you, I was completely wrong in my assumptions about Patmos. Granted, I don’t really know what it was like 2,000 years ago and it’s likely that anyone might complain even about a lovely place if they don’t want to be there. Still, the island I saw was gorgeous.
The sea is the most amazing shade of blue that I have ever seen. There are beautiful beaches and lovely harbors and imposing rocky cliffs. There’s this monastery that covers the high points of the island that full is feral cats and decorative archways. The most surprising part of the visit was the cave. John was supposed to have been living in a cave when he got the Revelation. About a thousand years after he wrote it down, the cave that was thought to house him was turned into a chapel. The structure is several square buildings attached to one another that kind of work their way down the hillside to the cave, completely enveloping the space inside brilliant white walls. When you stand inside the walls, all you see is white plaster and blue sky. There are these tall, narrow windows in the walls, through which you catch little glimpses of the Aegean Sea as you make your way down stone steps to get to the cave.
About halfway down the steps, I caught the scent of incense wafting its way towards us and filling the bright, open-air corridor in which we were walking. I started hearing music, too. It was Sunday morning. Worship had begun. We were late, but they were used to tourists being annoying and not showing up on time. They let us join the service. A group of teenage boys and young men were chanting. I have no idea what they were singing. I can read a little ancient Greek but the modern language being sung is much more difficult to understand. It didn’t matter though. I knew what was going on. This was church. They were singing on our behalf, on Christ’s behalf, with full knowledge of the weight of history in the space in which we worshiped. Their music, all acapella, filled the air and filled our hearts.
This was such a fascinating place to worship because it is a real cave. It’s just full of church stuff. There was a whole wall of icons of saints and a big gold chandelier. There were long, thin beeswax candles all over the place, bathing the room in a warm light. You could light a candle and say a prayer, an action familiar to those of us who have worshiped in Roman Catholic churches. A stranger passed me a candle. I prayed, but I don’t remember what for. Maybe gratitude for the trip. Maybe for my friend and her mom. Maybe for the work at the hospital that awaited my return. We only stayed a little while, leaving as the priest began his part of the liturgy. We quietly slipped out, full of the peace and beauty of the place. We went up to the road and caught a cab to the next part of our excursion. But, we all knew that we had experienced something special in that place.
King Solomon built a temple hoping to create a special, holy place like I encountered on that hillside in Greece, but to a much grander scale. He built a temple fit for a new nation that had found a homeland. Solomon’s father David secured Jerusalem for Israel and brought the arc of the covenant, that is the seat and sounding board for God, into the city. Solomon would build a temple to house the arc. This temple would be a sign of his hope for a fruitful and settled future for his once nomadic people. The temple would solidify his shift of the people’s worship from the hills and high places in the wilderness into this particular temple, which would hold the arc, the reminder of the people’s covenant with God.
We know God is present in this place because the cloud of the Lord fills the new temple, much as the incense, the chants, and the candlelight filled that cave chapel in Patmos. Scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us that God shows up in a cloud in lots of places in Hebrew Scripture: Leading the Israelites out of Egypt and hiding them from the army, sitting atop Mt. Sinai and talking with Moses, draping across the tabernacle, the “movable sanctuary” in which people transported the arc, and remembered the presence of God. In this story, the cloud is now here. We see the cloud so we will know that the God that once traveled with the people, guiding them in the wilderness, was present with them in this new place. This new temple was a symbol of the next step of the covenant, the building of a life in the promised land.
Solomon prayed over this temple, saying that he believed his God to be unlike any other God and expressing faith in this God as a covenant-keeper. Solomon built the temple as a sign that he was keeping his part of the covenant and he prayed that God would respond in kind. Importantly, though, the temple will not be the only place where one can encounter God. The God who can fill up this temple so fully that the priests cannot see is also the God whom Solomon knows is too vast to be contained in one building. Solomon prayed, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” God is in all places, touching all things, filling up caves in Greece, hospital rooms in Tennessee, sanctuaries in Maine, and jail cells in Texas. If we are lucky, we can catch a glimpse of this God, as though looking through a long, tall window in a chapel and seeing the sea.
Solomon believed God had a special relationship with his people. But, Solomon also knew that God was big enough to hear all people. Among Solomon’s great hopes was that foreigners would see this temple and know they could pray there and that this God would hear them. In fact, Solomon made a special petition for the strangers, even the tourists who showed up late to mass: If they pray, please, God, hear them and respond. As one who once traveled to a country I didn’t know, to hear prayers in a language I didn’t understand, and worshiped in a church built by someone else’s hand, I can’t help but feel like the ones who built that chapel in Greece must have prayed a prayer similar to Solomon’s, because I definitely felt that expansive, filled-to-the-brim God on that hillside by the sea.
Solomon knew the world was bigger than him and that God was bigger than him. He also knew that any success he had as a ruler would be because he aligned himself with God’s priorities and rooted himself in the covenant. He built a whole temple to remind himself of the need for God’s presence in his life. Perhaps that’s why we should continue to read this story of the dedication of the temple. It tells us of a vast God who is always present, who includes foreigners and uplifts the broken-hearted. When we are feeling lost or wounded, or when we just need to be reminded of a power bigger than ourselves, we can direct ourselves back to the places where we once encountered God. We can go to the sanctuaries, to the friends, to the dancefloors, and the hillsides, and know that we can find God there once again. Let us not be afraid to approach the presence of God. This is what gave hope to Solomon, and it is what can give us hope, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Garrett Galvin: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3754
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=364
Mary Alice Mulligan, "Proper 16 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.