Sermon: Sing a Noble Song
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Song of Solomon 2.8-13; Psalm 45.1-2, 7-10; James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
How Does One Sing A Noble Song?
The psalmist wrote: “My heart is stirring with a noble song” (Psalm 45.1; NRSV). In many respects, one’s life is a story or a song which comes from the heart. Mehmet Murat ildan, the Turkish author, said: “To live is to write a story. If you are a strong person, your life story will mostly be written by you; if you are a weak person, mostly others will write your life story” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/life-story)! How does one make one’s life a noble story; how does one sing a noble song?
For many years I taught adult students in a degree completion program. As I was qualified to teach several of the courses, I worked with many students for a full year. I heard their stories; I listened to their songs. In this context, I came to cherish Neil Diamond’s “Songs of Life:”
Songs of life, they ring From quiet steeples to distant valleys Along the hillsides of lovers' hearts Of lovers' hearts
Come sing your songs of life And they will keep you From ever wanting, from ever needing For ever more, for ever more
Oh, and when the moment's true It sings so softly to me and you You know it's true
So I sing my songs of life
That I will hold you inside forever And you will know me And I'll be yours and you'll be mine
Oh, and when the moments true They sing so softly to me and you You know they do, you know they do
And I'll sing my songs life That I may hold you, inside forever And you will know me, And I'll be yours and you'll be mine
Today’s readings have much to say about the heart – hopefully, with the psalmist, our heart is stirring with a noble song. The gospel reading tells us the story of an ignoble song. The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem (a fact which indicates these were the religious leaders of the day) happened to notice some of Jesus’ disciples failed to wash their hands before eating. Hence, they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (Mark 7.5: NRSV). They weren’t looking for information; they were challenging Jesus’ whole ministry (Eleanore Stump: http://liturgy.slu.edu/22OrdB090218/reflections_stump.html).
Given the challenge, Jesus replied: “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 commandments of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7.6-8; NRSV). The following verses, in which Jesus gives them an example of rejecting the commandment to keep their own tradition, are omitted from the lectionary:
For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this (Mark 7.10-13; NRSV)
Jesus then called the crowd and emphasized defilement stems from what comes out of the body, not what goes into it.
Although omitted from our reading, after Jesus and the disciples had left the crowd and entered a house, the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable. Jesus patiently told them what enters our body from the outside does not enter the heart – it enters the stomach. Those things that come out of a person are what defile – evil intentions come from the heart and result in actions of “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” (Mark 7.21b-22; NRSV). Jesus concluded by saying, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7.23; NRSV). Bear in mind – Jesus was not advocating that we do away with habits of cleanliness; he was criticizing the Pharisees and the scribes for emphasizing their traditions over and above God’s commandments. The cleanliness that really matters is the cleanliness of the heart, the “purity of heart.”
In matters of the heart, of our will, we have a choice between evil and good. We can act on our own selfish, egoistic impulses in pursuit of self-gratification or we can use the goods that God has given us in service to God and others. This is the message we find in the lectionary reading from James: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift [i.e., our expressions of love], is from above, coming down from the Father of lights . . . 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 1.17-18; NRSV). In our new birth in Jesus Christ we become the first fruits of God’s kingdom – as such, we bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit which Paul identifies as “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5.22; NRSV). Paul further tells us there is no law against such things.
James places the emphasis on the practice of our faith, on lived faith as opposed to right belief; orthopraxy as opposed to orthodoxy. As people of faith, we are to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1.19; NRSV). When people are troubled, they often want to share what they are experiencing – they want to be heard – they long for someone to listen; hence, we are to be quick to listen. But in listening, the temptation is to take control of the other’s problem such that we tell them what to do. Very often, people already know what they need to do; hence, we need to be slow to speak. Being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” are expressions of love and respect for the other. James further exhorts us to rid ourselves “of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls” (James 1.21; NRSV). This “implanted word” is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ.
James further tells us we are to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves;” as doers of the word, we will be blessed in our doing (James 1.22, 25; NRSV). Our hearts will be stirred with a noble song – we will have a joyous song of life worth singing!
Does this mean that our troubles are over? That we are never heavy hearted? Hardly! Over the past several days following the revelations of sexual abuse on the part of clergy, I find myself grieving for the Church! Instead of serving as God’s emissaries of love, many priests have chosen to act on their own egoistic and selfish search for gratification, and all too often, those in higher ecclesiastical positions of trust have chosen to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to reports of abuse. They have been complicit. Our Lord Jesus Christ wept; he is still weeping! As the Church, how do we repair such damage? How do we re-establish trust? We must begin with repentance; we must discipline where disciple is called for; and we must walk in love with the injured. Somehow, we must restore them such that they once again have a noble song stirring in their hearts.