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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 22, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
August 30, 2015

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

‘Rituals, writing and righteousness’

I was very excited yesterday to pick up a book I’d ordered some weeks ago. The book is by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a wonderful French philosopher. His Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945) is regarded one of the landmark works of 20-century thought. Excitedly, I underlined a couple of intriguing passages:

“The thing can never be separated from someone who perceives it … every perception is a communication or a communion.”

“When I return to myself from the dogmatism of common sense or of science, I do not find a source of intrinsic truth, but rather a subject destined to the world.”

Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy responds to the sheer wonder of existence our openness to the world and our embedded-ness in the world. Humanity is in and toward the world, and it is in the world that humanity knows itself.

The spiral golden ratio, nautilus shell, galaxy, fingerprint, Celtic maze as a symbol of intrinsic and extrinsic being is an apt phenomenological symbol of the perceived world. Subject and object. Body and spirit. Ritual-reality and lived-reality.

Our spiral-patterned sanctuary (pews moving to and from the baptismal font; to and from the altar-table) enfolds us (and our prayers/candles) within its form. Humanity is in and toward the world, and it is in the world that humanity knows itself.

I hope my excitement over a book is not a barrier to perception/appreciation of the spiral as image of our being in and toward the world. I won’t say any more about Merleau-Ponty today, but our Bible readings too evoke spirals double-movements in a Spirit of honesty and integrity, personal and social responsibility, ecological and spiritual wellbeing … God be with you

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 (failing to complete a double-movement of being in and toward the world) distance us from Love, from God.

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 precepts”. 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 Solomon’s Most Wonderful Song) 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.

The Young People, Sex, Love and the Media project (Macquarie University) found that 13-17 year olds want to know how to relate to people to whom they are attracted.

In short, marriage (the external ceremony, the public witness to fidelity, the wedding rings, the marriage certificate, and so on all of which 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 greed, envy, pride, foolishness, slander and bitterness.

I share these words in tribute to Al and Maggie who have chosen the lection from the Song of Solomon for their marriage celebration this week (a liturgical celebration in solidarity with fellow citizens currently denied an equal opportunity for legal marriage). There’s much we could say here about 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 both 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 outward sign of marriage is worthless if what is coming from within is greed, envy, pride, foolishness, slander and bitterness … covetousness, the desire to constrain or to control.

The double-movement of honesty and integrity, physical and emotional responsibility … spirals inwardly and outwardly. Our psalm for today bears a similar pattern. “Because I have espoused justice/ I am anointed with holy oil./ Because I have put on the garments of discipleship/ I feel transformed …” and so on. Public and private faithfulness.

One commentator writes: “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 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? ...Amen.