Loving Contrasts

Sermon Preached on September 2, 2018 – Pentecost + 15
By the Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Loving Contrasts

It’s tempting to remain in the Old Testament lesson this morning, in the beautiful text of the Song of Solomon, this book of love poems from the heart. And yet our lectionary pairs this glimpse of romantic love poetry with this Gospel text from Mark, in which Jesus admonishes us to remember that what defiles us doesn’t come from the world out there – but from within our hearts. As if letting us revel in love poems would be too entrancing, when matters of faith should require more wrestling than that. So instead we have this study in contrasts as both the Song of Solomon and the Gospel comment on matters of the heart, but in very different ways. Perhaps matters of the heart are always a study in contrasts.

The Song of Solomon is a compilation of poems or songs, most of which are in the voice of a woman in love. In our poem this morning she imagines she hears the voice of her beloved, and he asks her to come away with him. You can tell from her voice that she is overjoyed and in love.

The Song of Solomon is itself meant to serve as a contrast to the many references in the Hebrew Scriptures in which Israel’s lack of faith in God is portrayed using metaphors of Israel as a faithless woman. Israel as one who cannot be trusted, for she is self-absorbed, fickle; again and again she faithlessly chooses other gods. So the Song of Solomon provides another option, another image of what is possible. A couple so very much in love. A compelling contrasting comment on the relationship between God and Israel, one that offers hope even when things seem hopeless. Saying, ‘it won’t always be this way – there is a healthy relationship, a beautiful love story that is possible – so wonderful that it’s worth songs and poetry. It’s worth your heart.’

Our Gospel text is also a study in contrasts. Jesus is contrasting the rules of purity with purity of heart – it’s what is within our hearts that matters. It’s what we bring with us that defiles us. It is our fear, our prejudice, our darkness, that injure us the most. Jesus says: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 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…”

As a culture we know what Jesus means. Given the vitriol in our common life and conversations, the new normal in our public life and interaction; we’ve come to understand that it’s often what comes from within that defiles, tears down, and destroys. In our 21st century lives, through a barrage of broadcasts and online media, we are continually traumatized, bludgeoned by harsh commentary, derogatory statements, ‘all or nothing’ frameworks, and dramatic accusations. I wonder how the way we treat one another, and the way we speak aloud in the public square, are shaping us, as a people?

PTSD is a real phenomenon. I am beginning to wonder how much more we can take – living as if we are at war with one another – before it causes responses in us, psychologically and spiritually.

Would that we could escape all of this! Opt out, and take the offer of our poem in the Song of Solomon, to “come away.” But life’s not that simple is it? Rather we live a study in contrasts – needing to be engaged enough to respond to the needs of the world, without allowing ourselves to be distorted or misshapen by the ways in which the world is broken, and currently, the ways we treat one another.

May I suggest that we take a step back from our need to know, our need to be “right”, our need to be in the thick of all quite so much – and “come away” a little? Not check out completely, but focus on the horizon more, and the gutter a little less. Stop looking (gleefully or fearfully) for catastrophes, and look instead for what is good and beautiful and life-giving.

Actively seeking to counter the constant exposure to what is worst about human nature by finding ways to be inspired by humanity instead.

Three concrete suggestions to get us started:
1) Go take in something beautiful – visit an art exhibit, see a play, experience great music.

2) Fill your heart with an awe-inspiring place – appreciate the work of conservationists here in our coastal home; be inspired by their dedication to preserve the land, waterways and species of our beloved Maine.

3) Focus on the best of us. I highly recommend the movie RBG about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”- the movie about Fred Rogers and his authentic and powerful witness to kindness and integrity that shaped generations. When the movies were released this summer, both did better than anyone anticipated because we needed to be reminded of people of integrity who give of themselves.

It’s no wonder that our nation has spent this week honoring both Aretha Franklin and John McCain. We hunger for the opportunity to honor the lives of these individuals – both great Americans in their own right, each of whom used their gifts to serve the greater good to the best of their ability. People of honor and integrity, of deep faith and good will, both embodied grit and determination and service to others.

When asked once about being the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin said: “Being the Queen is not all about singing, and being a diva is not all about singing. It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well.”

By making life better for those around them, serving their families and communities, and our nation – Aretha Franklin and John McCain do more than remind us of what is good in the world, they inspire and lift us up. They encourage us to get back out there and do the work justice and mercy, the work we have been given to do. Even though it’s not easy work, and there’s no guarantee we will be successful.

In John McCain’s words: “No just cause is futile, even if it’s lost, if it helps make the future better than the past.” (The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations)

As both Aretha Franklin and John McCain are laid to rest this weekend and honored by millions across this country, may we be inspired once again to be our better selves. May we be strengthened to live into this time of contrasts – shielding ourselves, our souls and spirits, from being distorted by the vitriol in our public discourse, while we choose to respond in such a way that respects the dignity of everyone. May we change the nature of the conversation and be our better selves even in the toughest of situations.

Consider today’s Gospel text – if what defiles comes from within – then potentially what blesses and upholds also comes from within. If we choose to fill ourselves with gratitude and life-giving joy over the bitterness of the public square, we might bring forth love and life abundant to others in every interaction we share. And we will all be better for it – ourselves, those around us, and our communities, shaped by loving and respectful conversation and interactions which uphold the dignity of everyone.

Living into our call to love God and our neighbors as ourselves is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining in its own right. In the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, “Love seems to be something that keeps filling up within us. The more we give away, the more we have to give.” (The World According To Mister Rogers )

Perhaps this matter of the heart doesn’t need to be complicated after all. Arise my love, my fair ones, let’s find our way to our better selves together, loving God and one another and filling the space between us with mutual respect and understanding. Amen.