Sunday, September 2, 2018
Year B Proper 17 2018 First Fruits
Year B Proper 17, 2 September 2018
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 James 1:17-27 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘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.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “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: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
If you remember, in the book of Acts [10:9-16], Peter has been working with the people in Joppa, just south of what is today Tel Aviv. A tarp comes down from heaven filled with unclean food, and God says, “Eat up!” Now being a good Jewish boy, this unclean food has never passed his lips. Maybe he thought it was a test, because he says as much to God. But three times Peter has to receive this message before he gets it. (Notice the three with Peter, a repeated pattern in his life.) But what God has declared clean, who was he to declare profane? Finally Peter got it. And in receiving, understanding, and accepting that lesson, God opens the door for him to go and minister to a Roman Centurion and his household. Definitely not a kosher thing to do.
We think that we can control or manipulate God by our restrictions or our observances. Think of a battlefield prayer, like “God if you get me out of this I’ll__________[whatever]_______.” Or during Lent, God will love us more without chocolate or whatever our favorite vice is. Like Bishop Shannon said one time when I heard him speaking about what to give up for Lent: “God does not care if you don’t eat chocolate!” Jesus makes the same point with us. It is not what goes in that defiles us. It is supposed to be devotion, not scarcity. What goes in is not so important. It is what comes out that is.
We all know the darkness of the human heart, and you could list as well as I can examples of people who look perfectly fine on the outside but inside are filthy. Their hearts are impure. They are filled with all kinds of ugliness. Hate is their vice more than any tangible substance. Jesus has a litany of the the outcome of those dark hearts:
fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
All these things start in the heart. No matter what Flip Wilson said, the devil does NOT make us do it. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
So what are we to do?
Where do we start?
When I do the training at Shrine Mont, one of the things we always tell new counselors is do not tell people what not to do, tell them what to do. When a kid runs at the pool, you do not yell. “No running!” Because human nature being what it is, the kid runs faster to “get in the pool in case they are yelling at me” or just to show their power and get away with it. Say what you want to have happen. “Walk. We walk at the pool.” It has much more of the desired effect.
So as we look today about the human heart, what are we to do? Love. It is what it all comes back to in everything. Why do we read that Bible? To see how much we are loved and be shown how much we are to love one another.
It is so easy to get bogged down with the distraction of whether someone else is not doing what they are supposed to be doing, or what we can get away with. What we should be focusing on is what about our loving.
A comedian tells the story of his two daughters fighting over who got “more.” His response, “The only time you should look in someone else’s bowl is to make sure they have enough.” So true. And that should apply to so many things.
As we heard from our reading from James today:
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. James 1:17 and following
We receive the gifts of God because God loves us. There is no dark ulterior motives. We receive from God’s abundance because of God’s abundant nature and God’s abundant love for us. Everything you have is a gift from God. God did that so that you can be God’s First Fruits of God’s Creation.
First Fruits is a funny phrase, but it has a particular meaning. It is the unblemished best which is given to God, and it comes first. This gift is the priority and comes before anything else. Think about when people are picked for a pick-up game, whether basketball or dodgeball. The first picked are usually the best, the fastest or strongest. The First Fruits were the best produce which came first, and was owed to God or the landlord. We are the First Fruits of God’s new order, the produce of Christ’s redemption work.
God chose US First for God’s Team. Even our choosing is an act of LOVE for US!
And what do we do as those “First Fruits?” What does God want of us?
To give that love away. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only…” James encourages us. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
We are the First Fruits. Unblemished, the Cream of the Crop of all Creation. Made ready and acceptable through Christ, we are invited to give ourselves as living sacrifices back to God by being of use in the world.
We do this out of love. We do it in response to that love which we received first.
One of the most powerful images in St. Paul goes along with the First Fruit idea. Paul speaks in Ephesians 1 on this:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
God chose us before we even had a chance to respond back in love. He made us into who we needed to be to be Children of God. If we keep with the sports metaphor, when we were picked for God’s team God already had a jersey in our size with our name already on it waiting for us! Talk about love.
Today’s readings began with the love song, the immortal and passionate poetry of the Song of Solomon. It has often been disregarded at best and ignored at worst. It seems out of place amongst the rest of Scripture, almost. It is far from what we expect.
So many come to Scripture, thinking that it about the Spiritual. And the Song of Solomon seems so far from that. It is “just a love poem.”
But the wonderful part of Scripture is that it speaks not to just the Spiritual, it speaks to the human condition. All of it. The Good. The Bad. The Sinful. The Saints. And yes, here it speaks to the type of love that makes our hearts go all aflutter. Romantic or Eros Love is the surface level reading of the Song of Solomon. A man and woman waxing poetic of how much they adore the other is all that this seems. Another reading though, and it has been brought up throughout the ages in many an attempt to “spiritualize” it is seeing the seeking and sought after nature of love between God and God’s People.
When the metaphor is used as the Church as the Bride of Christ, this reading takes on a new light. And we can even personalize it and think of our soul as the one God is wooing. This best reading I think, is the straight one, the irrational and beautiful love between two people in love. But thinking in light of the First Fruit idea that we are talking about today, I cannot but hear how much God loves each of us, and how much we can love God back.
My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
Come away, we are being called. Come away from the way things are. Come away from those things that corrupt us, the darkness and hardness of heart that expresses itself when we are at our worst. Come away to love. Come away to our Love. Come away to God. Amen.