The first time I proposed to my wife some years ago, she didn’t seem to hear me. We were walking in the evening in New York City. Because it was unexpected and didn’t come along with the traditional ritual of bent knee and proffer of a ring, she probably wasn’t ready to hear it. The final time I proposed to my wife she had just returned from a kayaking trip in the Solomon Islands. She was jet-lagged and exhausted. This time I got down on one knee and began my proposal. As I spoke, her jet-lagged body slid from her chair to sitting on the floor, so I bent down even more to be in the traditional supplicant posture. She slumped lower. Finally, when she was flat on the floor where I could not get lower than her, I popped the question. She said, “Okay.” Life has been great ever since. In her defense, she claims to remember events a little differently.
Our lessons today have a lot to say about tradition – and about courtship. Reflecting on the Song of Solomon, we are shown a somewhat different view of God than the image painted for us as children. We’ve been taught to think of God the all powerful, the almighty, the majestic, seated on a great throne surrounded by prostrate seraphim and cherubim. All tremble in awe and fear, afraid to approach.
The Song of Songs gives us a very different view of God; he is leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills like a gazelle or a young stag. And there he stands, behind our wall, gazing into our window, almost shyly catching a glimpse of his beloved – us. He peeks at us through our balcony window. “My beloved spoke and said to me, ‘Arise my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land…Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.’” Talitha khoum,” awake and arise, little girl.
Now that is an untraditional view of our God, one quite different from our traditional Sunday school lessons. But, this is precisely the view of God Jesus teaches in the Gospels. God the lover, the God of endless mercy and forgiveness, constantly extending Grace upon Grace to us. Hoping that we will accept his proposal.
Sometimes we don’t notice, we don’t realize that God is proposing to us. We can get so involved in the business of life, and even in the busyness of doing good works, that we don’t really hear our lover calling to us. It’s almost as if we were Juliet and God our Romeo. Our lover is there, outside our window, below our balcony, calling to us shyly, softly. And Juliet? She’s busy browsing through the Vera Wang or Kleinfeld website saying, “Yes to the dress.”
We humans easily get very focused on events, traditional events, like a wedding. We fret about who to invite, who will sit where, who is at the head table, what the menu will be. Flower arrangements become the most important thing in life. The bridesmaids dresses, the venue. Even in human relationships it’s easy to let the traditions crowd out the essence. It’s easy to let romance transform into focus on the peripheral events rather than the lover and the developing relationship of love.
We can understand and excuse the attention we pay to a wedding. It’s a once in a lifetime event, if we are lucky. But, this can happen in our religion as well. True religion is not a once in a lifetime event. God is calling us to a relationship of love with him. This relationship of love needs to be developed and cultivated. Yet it’s easy to get caught up in the traditions, the practices, the rituals of religion to the point where we don’t hear the quiet voice of Him who loves us.
Traditions can be good. They hold us together. They give us a comfortable predictability. But, what can be good can also, in excess, become deleterious, negative.
Our Gospel lesson this morning has Jesus and the disciples dining with the Pharisees. It’s a good teaching about the dangers of excess focus on tradition. We often “throw together” the Sadducees and the Pharisees as if they were interchangeable. But the Pharisees were very different from the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the hereditary elite, the priestly caste. They were strict followers of the Law of Moses and believed rigid observance of the written law was all that mattered - and all there was. No spirits, no angels, no messiah. When you died, you died. That was it. A self-fulfilling prophecy. The Sadducees disappeared from the scene after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 69 AD. There are no more Sadducees.
The Pharisees, on the other hand believed in the afterlife. They were highly educated, and believed in angels, spirits, the coming of the Messiah and the life hereafter. Paul himself was a Pharisee in his Jewish life. But they were also immersed in religious tradition. Here they are in our reading, teachers of Israel, gathered together in the presence of Jesus. And, what did they focus on? Tradition, tradition!
The Jews at that time had elaborate traditions about ceremonial washings, ritual cleansing, separations of pots and dishes. Which plates are for milk; which for meat. Which foods are eaten and when. Which foods are to be avoided and when. Judaism was – and in many cases still is – a religion of careful observance of traditions of men as well as the commandments of God. The Pharisees saw the disciples sitting down to eat after only a cursory washing of hands without the accompanying rituals. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for not requiring his disciples to observe the tradition of the elders. In response, Jesus quotes Isaiah;
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
Jesus teaches us to discern inward belief of the heart from outward behavior. What defiles is that which comes out of a person, and what comes out of a person comes from the heart.
Our animal heart, our animal nature is a primal condition common to us all. Let’s be truthful. We are a species suspended between the beasts and full human beings; suspended between talking animals and sons and daughters of God, siblings of Jesus. We search the fossil record in vain for the missing link between us and the “lower animals.” We haven’t found the missing link in the fossil record because we ourselves are the missing link! Evolution is not over yet, but we don’t realize it. You all know from experience how children at every age, whether two year-olds, teens or twenties, kids think they now know all there is to know. It’s like that with our species. We arrogantly call ourselves Homo Sapiens, wise hominids. Just look at the world! It would be more correct to call ourselves Homo-Barely-Erectus, hominids just up a step from dragging our knuckles on the ground. Jesus knows this.
We are called to complete our evolution and become Homo Divinus, something amazing on the face of the earth. We are to become Brothers and Sisters of Christ; adopted children of God the Father. This is the transformation of self Jesus teaches. First we have to honestly face what we are today. Then, we repent, we turn our face away from these things. But this isn’t so easy. As Paul says, the old man does not want to die. Our animal self wants the new born again person to slide on over us as easily as a new dress or a new suit. Jesus taught and showed us this old animal self, our self, must be put to death so we can be reborn. But our original animal nature doesn’t want to go quietly. It engages us in a war of survival and preeminence of the animal fittest.
We don’t really want to change. Traditions are a way of dignifying the status quo. Our traditions support our animal nature. Think about our cultural traditions. We at heart want to be animal Alphas. “Go Bills. Go Sabers. Go Blue Devils! We’re number One! USA! USA! Kill ‘em, crush ‘em. Bring home the trophy, the medal, ...the meat!”
It’s only natural, isn’t it? Yes, but “Doin’ what comes naturally” is a tradition, not a recommendation. We live in a culture of animal violence, and we celebrate it. The 24-hour news cycle feeds us on it, and by so doing, feeds the violent cycle. We love violence – as long as we can watch it at a safe distance. Sure we tut-tut, and pray for the victims. But we love to see the righteous celebrity torn down, the powerful dictator overthrown, the oppressor strung up. The more outrageous the politician, the more he appeals to our sense of outrage and retribution.
So, where is the Church in all this? Jesus teaches us to break this cycle of animal primacy. Break the cycle of attack-revenge. Jesus had some clear teaching. Let’ see, Remember that the measure by which you measure out will be measured back to you. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Do not resist evil, but if your enemy strikes you on one cheek, turn the other. If he forces you to go one mile, go two. If he takes your coat, give him your shirt. Give to him who begs from you, do not refuse him who would borrow. Forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven. Blessed are the humble, the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name. Break the cycle, break the tradition, try a new response.
What mattered in my “low-down” marriage proposal was not the bent knee, the proffered ring, who got down the lowest. These are all traditions, and good ones. What mattered was what I said and meant; that she was my beloved and that I wanted to join with her for the rest of our lives. Churches often seems to be focused on teaching how to bend the knee, the size and shape of the ring, and the correct posture to take.
Young people in particular, are thirsty for spiritual experience. All people want to understand the meaning of their lives. Church should be the place for this. But, often what seekers find is wishy-washy talk about being nice to each other, condemnation of others, judging others for how they observe our traditions, instruction on the “right” traditional way to worship God or even political action recommendations. We forget that the only “tradition” that will guide us all into a Christian life is the transformation of self, of loving God, not judging our neighbor, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are all hungry for the message of a transformed heart. And the words and actions that come from a transformed heart will indeed be Christian.
The creator, the lover of our souls, is peering at us through the window, looking at us longingly, hoping and encouraging that the brothers and sisters of Christ emerge. He loves us – not the animal self yet to be transformed, but the soul, the true self hidden inside each of us, struggling to emerge. God the Father is pouring out his love and Grace to help us. Let’s believe in the One he sent … and really listen to him.May God add his blessing to these words.