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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Homily

Ordinary Sunday 22, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 2, 2012

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

Rituals, writing and righteousness’

The reading from James refers to a powerful and saving word implanted in the heart – which, whatever that means, means more than a word printed in a book. The Gospel reading is about certain attitudes to laws of religion, to texts and rituals, which distance us from Love, from God. God be with you

Mark recounts that Jesus was criticised by the experts in religious law for failing to keep or teach others to keep the letter of the law. Jesus responds with a stinging critique of the integrity of his critics. In this particular account, the issue is the ritual washing of hands before eating, and reference is made to numerous laws observed by the experts with regard to ritual washing for purification.

Citing the prophet Isaiah, Jesus turns on them and accuses them of hypocrisy. It is not that faithfulness to “externals” is wrong in itself (caring about washing hands and utensils is good and helpful not least in that it promotes care, reverence for food and the sharing of food, reverence for life), but that externals (rituals as well as written texts) properly relate to inward realities (transformations of heart and mind). As mere externals they are all-too “human traditions”. Or worse, they are lies.

One commentator sees that our readings from James and Mark – about rituals, writing and righteousness – alongside the Song of Solomon’s ostensibly non-religious celebration of sexual love, provoke re-consideration of sexual ethics and marriage (often debated in terms of purity and with reference to biblical purity codes). Non-religious doesn’t mean irreligious. That the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is in our Bible at all is testament to the capacity of sexual love to bear spiritual and moral meaning. And sexual morality is really not so different from other kinds of morality. “The more you treat … people with love, respect, honesty and faithfulness, the more ethical your behaviour is …” Marriage is touted by some as a guarantee of sexual ethics. But the external signs of morality can often become detached from the morality they signify.

Not only with ritual washing but with sex, too.

In short, marriage (the external ceremony, the external marriage certificate, the public witness to fidelity, and so on – all of which, I believe, are good, or can be good, for straight, gay or queer lovers) without loving, caring, faithful relating has no moral value whatsoever. It is an empty sign, an all-too human tradition, a lie. The sign of marriage is worthless if what is coming from within is envy, pride, adultery, slander and bitterness.

Frank has told me about a television advertisement he once acted in. Frank played the role of a husband – an abusive husband intent on possession, on domination. There’s much we could say here – about betraying the biblical promise of mutual respect, the biblical promise of mutual submission. We could add that the Song of Solomon is revelatory in that it privileges the voice of one at risk of becoming just another slave or plaything for the king (the erotic poetry we might prosaically call Ruler Wants a Concubine is undermined by the presence of a strong woman – she is not afraid to express her feelings and desires – including a desire for exclusive commitment – she is unbowed before the patriarch-monarch renowned for his wisdom and his harem). We might add that the Song of Solomon is thus a proto-feminist text – good news for women and for men, and for us all.

The sign of marriage is worthless if what is coming from within is envy, pride, adultery, slander and bitterness … covetousness, the desire to constrain or to control.

I agree with all those who affirm marriage but who also call for additional moral and ritual structures to support and encourage wholeness and holiness for those for whom marriage is not the right option at the time. I’m thinking of couples that make a decision against “traditional” marriage (the institution is hopelessly patriarchal, or hopelessly heterosexual, or the life commitment is unrealistic for various reasons) – those who make a decision to live together, for example – to declare their love honestly and without shame, and in a community context of accountability.

“If your sexual behaviour is secretive, pushy, selfish, disrespectful or lacking in mutual respect, then your behaviour is … ethically indefensible … and no institution [ritual] or label will [make it right] … The Christ whom we follow … condemns unquestioning repetition of the old party lines, but continues to call us to strive for love, honesty and faithfulness, and to create structures [and rituals] that will uphold and encourage [purity of heart]” (Nathan Nettleton).

Let’s think a little more this morning about religious “externals” and the part they play in our lives. How do our externals (rituals of eating/fasting, dressing, praying, marrying) relate to inward realities (transformations of heart and mind)? For public and/or private benefit, how do our rituals draw us closer to God?

A little ritual this morning, to help us to be honest. We are invited to pour some water as a sign of the need to refresh the ground of our lives before God – with God. How do our externals (rituals of eating/fasting, dressing, praying, marrying) relate to inward realities (transformations of heart and mind)? For public and/or private benefit, how do our rituals draw us closer to God? ... Amen.