Year B, Proper 17
Last week our texts confronted us with the choice to acknowledge God’s presence and to live within it. This week we are instructed in ways of living from our hearts within the presence of God. As Rev. Kate Huey writes in her weekly sermon blog, “Sermon Seeds,”[i]we are instructed to “Be Love.” As we all know this is easier said than done!
Fortunately our texts give us some very specific instructions. In Deuteronomy we have the story of Moses instructing the Israelites how to use the law God has given to them through Moses to make the transition into the Promised Land. Moses advises, “Stick to the law and commandments of God. Do not alter them. For what nation has so wise a god who is so near as the Lord? Or so wise a law from such a god? Do not forget that God brought you through the wilderness. Teach the stories of what you learned and teach the law to your children and children’s children.” Psalm 15 echoes Moses’ exhortation. Who knows and experiences God’s presence? “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart…”(Psalm 15:2).
The epistle text from James is a New Testament wisdom passage. A wise teacher is writing to an early Christian community about faith, about living in the presence of God through the ways of Christ. As Moses tells the people to stay true to the commandments God has given to them, this teacher reminds the people that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”(James 1:17). Do not dabble in faith just hearing the teachings but not taking them to heart. But let the teaching of God through Christ change your heart and so your actions in the world. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 19th century, “Go put your creed into your deed.”[ii] “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22).
In the text from Mark Jesus is asserting the same principles but in reverse. When his disciples are criticized for not following all the religious purity laws of the Pharisees, Jesus quotes the ancient prophet, Isaiah. “’This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus has no patience with those who honor the trappings of religion rather than the essence of God’s teachings. He tells the Pharisees that nothing from outside the bodies can defile a person. What defiles our souls, our minds and our actions are the values of our hearts. Jesus is saying in a reverse manner that it is the religion or faith of the heart in the ways of God that makes the difference in who we are and how we act in the world. If our outside actions do not reflect what is in our hearts then they are worthless.
Living in God’s presence and choosing the ways of God in our daily living requires practice. We will never fully or constantly maintain connection to God’s presence or a perfect balance of hearing and doing the Word in our actions. Practice is the key…not as a means to perfection…but as a way of life. Knowing that all good things come from God in this world how will we PRACTICE using our gifts in God’s service, moment by moment, day by day? Keeping the laws and commandments in our hearts…living them in our actions as well as our words…yet not allowing the human interpretation of those laws to solidify into crushing dogma that cuts off the life of the faith. We must practice hearing, seeing, experiencing the presence and ways of God in daily routine. It is the practice that keeps our hearts open and receptive and ready to receive. It is then that we will be truly in Presence with God, with ourselves and with others.
Our two scriptures from the narrative thread of texts in this season give voice to celebrating the presence of the beloved and of a good king. In both cases the presence of the one celebrated blesses the people or person who adore him or her. The love and adoration brings a blessing to the land. In Song of Solomon the beloved can be an allegory for the Divine. In Psalm 45 the role of king can be interpreted as a link for the people to the Divine. In ancient Israel, the king was not divine but was a representative anointed by God to govern the people wisely. We see prototypes for this in David and Solomon. Though neither were perfect human beings their kingships were blessed by God and they strove to be wise kings following the ways of God.
There is a story about King Solomon from The Talmud that tells of his discovery of being present to whatever life may bring. We could add to his discovery that he can trust following the path of presence because he is held in God’s love and providence. The story is titled “This Too Shall Pass.” It can be found in Elisa Davy Pearmain’s Doorways to the Soul and in Wisdom Tales From Around the World by Heather Forest. I found it told in a sermon on-line and credited to Pearmain’s re-telling. The sermon was given by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, June 2, 2002. You can find the story at the beginning of the sermon at http://www.first-church.org/sermons/2002/2002060514.htm
As we turn our attention to practicing God’s presence I am reminded of a Zen story, “The Empty Cup.” In the story a student (or it is also told as a scholar or university professor) comes to a Zen master seeking to experience and to understand zen. (You can find one explanation of zen at http://www.taoism.net/articles/what_zen.htm . “Zen” can be compared to an experience of the presence of the Divine. In the story it can work as a metaphor for Divine presence.) The student begins to chatter about questions and life and insights while the master makes tea. When the tea is poured the master pours tea into the student’s cup until it is overflowing into the saucer. Finally the student says, “Stop! What are you doing?” The master says, “You are like this cup. You are very full of your own ideas and the ideas of others about zen. I cannot begin to teach you about zen until you come to me like an empty cup.” I found this story in Pearmain’s book and at:
A Jewish folktale from Afghanistan tells of a man whose life demonstrates the constant and consistent practice of God’s presence.He is a cobbler with a loving and generous spirit who praises God every day and looks to God to provide for him. One day the cobbler receives a visit from the king or shah of the region. This king delights in walking about his kingdom disguised as a wandering commoner to check on his subjects. The disguised king is given a hearty welcome and great hospitality in the home of the cobbler who attributes his welfare and abundance to the goodness of God. After leaving the cobbler’s house the king decides to test his new friend. He proceeds to put the cobbler through several trials that take the man’s livelihood from him in a series of proclamations making it to illegal to repair shoes, then to gather and sell firewood, etc. Each time the man finds a new way to make a living the king prohibits is against the man’s ways of the faith the king is very curious as to how he will react. When the cobbler finds a clever way to honor the order to be executioner and to set the prisoner to be executed free, the king finally reveals himself. He asks the cobbler to be his most trusted advisor and live in the palace with him. “What do you say to that?” says the king. The cobbler smiles and says, “What I say is, the Lord has provided, and you and I together will praise him day by day.”[iii] You can find this story until the title “The Sword of Wood” at http://www.hasidicstories.com/Stories/Nachman_of_Bratslav/sword_wood.html .
Blessings as you seek God’s presence through story,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015 and beyond. Text and photos may be used by permission only.
[iii]“The Cobbler”, Stories for Telling; ATreasury for Christian Storytellers, William R. White, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986, 83-86.)