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Life Together – Spirituality Embodied

September 2, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2012. The first image is from the beginning of the Song of Songs from a twelfth century Latin Bible in the library of Winchester Cathedral. The second image is from a 15th century manuscript of Psalm 34.

Psalm 34     Song of Songs 2     James 1: 17-27

I was reading an article by Brian Wren, who wrote the final hymn we will sing this morning, and came across what he called “an old proverb.”  It goes like this:

What I hear, I forget.

What I see, I remember.

What I do, I understand.

Now that doesn’t give me much hope for what this sermon will accomplish, but I think, overall, it does ring true in our lives, particularly the last phrase: what I do, I understand.

The writer of the epistle of James is clear that it is what we do that forms who we truly are, both as individuals and as a community of faith.  One might look upon the book of James as practical wisdom for Christian living.  He discusses real life situations – not abstractions.  For example, he blatantly discusses actions of the rich that hurt the poor, the hypocrisy of wishing someone well but doing nothing to help ensure that well-being, how powerful people drag poor members of the congregation into court, and how farmworkers’ wages are withheld by the field owners.  Without mincing words, James challenges the congregation to faithful action to address these matters.  These are not topics to be discussed so much as they are behaviors to be corrected or new actions to be taken.

Our actions in faith are always related to our reception and understanding of God’s word.  James prays that we might receive the word of God with meekness. But understanding comes when we live this word in our life together as a community; it comes when we allow the word to “indwell us.”

James distinguishes between hearers of the word and doers of the word.  Hearers of the word are like people who look into a mirror and walk away, forgetting what they have seen.  Doers of the word are like people who look into the mirror, remember what they see and consequently live differently.

The mirror is what he calls alternatively the “word of God” and the “law of liberty,” what we know as the Torah or the covenant between God and God’s people that is recorded in Scripture.  The Torah was heard by most people in synagogue, as sections of scrolls were read aloud.  The Torah was also interpreted by Pharisees, teachers of the law within communities who taught the people what to practice.  For us this is a shift.  First when we hear word of God we think Bible.  But the Bible wasn’t compiled yet.  Second, we’re used to bible studies where we pour over a text and where interpretation is about what the text “means.”  James stresses that what we do – how we live – is an interpretation of the law.   It is what we do that brings understanding.  The mirror, interestingly enough, is not simply the Torah, the covenant, but rather the covenant as lived out in life together.  The community of faith reflects this “law of liberty” to one another as they practice it together.

So when James discusses the “word of God” or the “perfect law” or “the law of liberty” as a “mirror,” he does not mean principally, a text, either heard or read.  He means the word of God that is reflected when the community of faith keeps God’s covenant together in their lives.

It is life together in love that both reflects ourselves back to ourselves and shapes us into God’s image.  The community endeavoring to live according to God’s covenant forms that mirror in which we see the covenant love of God, that creates, redeems and sustains; that loves us into being, weeps for our falling, and longs for our return.  We see God’s passion for us and, if we are tenacious, we can also see the origin of our passions in God.

The Song of Songs is, just like James, a book that deals with the realities of life – our material, lived experience.  But unlike James, the Song is a love poem, or a collection of love poems, erotic love poems so rich with imagery of kisses, breasts, cheeks and thighs as to have raised the eyebrows of rabbis and church fathers from the first century to the present.  One commentary I read suggested that every preacher need to make a choice today: is the Song a collection of erotic poetry or an allegory of God’s love for Israel, or in Christian tradition, of Christ’s love for the church.  But this is a false choice – one that pits the material against the spiritual, one that mistakenly misses God’s love incarnate in our world.[1]

To choose either that this is an erotic love poem between humans or somehow a “spiritual” love song of God for God’s people is to miss the powerful connection between human love and divine love.  Our ability to love is rooted in the fact that God first loved us; and loved us not in some abstract cosmic way, but in very real, historical, material, embodied ways that have led and continue to lead us into new life together.  That we often debase, misuse and cheapen love does not change the fact that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.” We love because God first loved us.

Now the good news is that some get it right!  Some get it right!  In one of the first weddings I officiated many years ago, the couple chose for their scripture reading select passages from the Song of Songs. They memorized them, and read to each other.

He said, “Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely, your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil…You are stately as a palm tree, and your breast are like its clusters.  I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches.  O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.”

She said, “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again?  I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?  My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.  I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.”

The parents and in-laws were blushing in the front pew.  The congregation, with mouths dropping, began to understand the holiness of two becoming one flesh.  And for the first and only time, a bridesmaid passed out.  The couple was using the Song to speak of a powerful physical love that had transformed each of them – not only physically but spiritually, emotionally, intellectually as well.  Their bodies became the vehicle through which knowledge of love was offered to their whole selves.

God does desire us, and we are made to desire God, with the kind of passionate longing we often only connect with physical love.  It is that – even with God – and it is much more.  Because the life of the soul and the life of the body are not distinct.

I am reminded that the Westminster Catechisms defines the chief end, or purpose of human life as the love and enjoyment of God. To glorify and enjoy God forever.  Anything less than “enjoying” would miss the passion of God for us as embodied people who live through our bodies, as well as our hearts, minds and spirits, every day of our lives.[2]  In fact, our psalm today anthropomorphizes God to show God’s tender care for our very bodies – and by extension our whole selves.

Our psalm this morning sketches an intimate portrait of God’s goodness, care, and justice experienced by the Hebrew community.  Here “God takes on human form in the most nurturing capacities. God’s eyes gaze on the righteous; God’s ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord, God’s presence, shuns evil and spares our memories their mark. Hearing the righteous cry, God delivers them from their troubles. Those whose spirits are crushed, and the brokenhearted – for these God cares and tends. God keeps every bone of our bodies safe and ransoms the life of each servant. God hears, rescues, saves and delivers. God’s nurture is tender, loving care of our bodies as much as of our minds and souls. God’s presence uplifts our spirits.”[3]  The life of the soul and the body are one, indeed!

Note that it is not just the “individual” but the community – the “them” – whose bones are crushed, that God caresses and heals.  And it is not simply that whole communities need healing, but that it is within community that we can encounter God’s tender care as we live life together. 

For the imagery of this psalm also provides us with a way of accompanying one another and all those who suffer, who are sad, who feel pain, face disease, or need care. To see and hear one another, especially when we cry out; to approach and be near to those who are broken in mind and soul; to lift up, to love, to encourage those with crushed spirits; to tend to the bodies that need our care – all this is the work to which God calls us.  And that care may also be in spirit – not just in body.

A few years ago a student came to see me in my office.  He had been confirmed in the church, and had powerfully felt the presence of God during that process, but something in him told him that he needed to find his own way without the help of the church.  He was pursuing the popular ‘spiritual without being religious’ path chosen by so many.  But after two years he realized he no longer prayed, didn’t know how to pray, and missed the daily presence of God that being part of the church community and regular worship reinforced.  And faced with a change of school that would take him away from his home town, he suddenly realized what he had been missing.  He was missing church.  We prayed; and made a plan to plan to pray together, even across the geographical distance that would separate us. I shared with him some prayer tools including a book of particularly insightful, powerful prayers that was written by Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar.[4]  These prayers are saturated in scriptural allusions and passages, that I thought could serve as a mirror for him, revealing not only dimensions of himself he had overlooked when praying alone, but also revealing God to him in the details of daily life, in particular, in life together.  This student texted me when he arrived at school to say he would be happy to have me share this profound experience of spiritual reorientation with others.  As he put it, he had spent two years seeking God alone, to discover, again, that God was seeking him, this time, through the church community; that community that enabled him to pray once more.  He wanted  others in the church to know this, so that you too might be encouraged in your faith.

God longs to transform us in love by inviting us to that heart, mind, soul, body struggle of living together in love.  For what we do, we understand.  And so I close with this blessing from James:  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.  Thanks be to God.


[1] Peter Bower, ed. Handbook or the Revised Common Lectionary, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

[2] Question 1, “Westminster Larger Catechism,” Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA).

[3] Allison Read. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3. Edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

[4] Walter Brueggemann. Prayer for a Privileged People. Abingdon Press, 2008. Also recommended, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Fortress Press, 2003.

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