Life Is Short: Proper 17

Life Is Short: Proper 17

Proper 17: August 29, 2021
The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Year B: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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Life is short – if anything the last eighteen months are proof of that, and for me the last week has had more than its share of moments realizing how short life is. Three people in my immediate life were diagnosed with COVID over the last few days, two of whom are breakthrough cases, meaning that they are vaccinated. Marty and I got rapid COVID tests earlier this week because we potentially had been directly exposed. Thank God, we tested negative.

We don’t know what may happen in any given moment. I think of the people desperate to flee Afghanistan, and of our valiant and brave service members, who were killed by a suicide bomber whose ideologies we can’t begin to understand. I think of the people who have been diagnosed with COVID and have died of COVID over the last eighteen months of the people suffering from natural disasters. There are so many crises in the world right now, and my heart goes out to all who are suffering.

All of this makes me remember that in life we sometimes don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. It reminds me, and I hope all of you, that we must be quick to love and quick to be kind.

It’s sometimes hard to do that because we live in a world where people attribute everything to God, or nothing to God. It’s as if everything that happens has been planned out and dictated by God, or, on the other that God isn’t there at all and God is relevant to nothing.

The perfect response to those feelings is found in the very first verse of James: “Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift” is from God.[1] It doesn’t say “the stuff we want” is from God, it says, “every generous act of giving and every perfect gift.”

How in today’s world do we understand those who are “doers of the word”[2], who undertake generous acts of giving, and generous acts of love?

Perhaps the very first way it is known, in our human experience, is in the embrace shared by parent and child. Can anything fill one’s hearts more completely than hugs with toddlers just learning to offer them or babies just learning to receive them?

Our first reading today is a compelling expression of the giving and receiving of such love. At its heart, its imagery is as simple as a deep abiding love.

“The voice of my beloved! Look: he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills! … like a gazelle or a young stag …Arise my love, my fair one, and come away … the time of singing has come.”[3]

That surging of emotion is echoed in the Psalm: “My heart is stirring with a noble song.”[4]

Our souls revel in the simple act of offering one’s heart and soul to another, for no reason other than the joy that its giving and receiving bring. I’m talking about agape love, not romantic love. The essence of agape love is generous giving, goodwill, benevolence, and delight in the other. Agape love involves faithfulness, commitment, and an act of the will. It is distinguished from the other types of love by its moral nature and strong character.

James builds on this theme. James must remind those in the first century and us today that we need to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers.” We need also to be reminded that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above.” It is a gift we are given, the very motivation, the compulsion of the Spirit to join God in the act of self-giving love.

It is so simple when the heart of the beloved is truly led by love. Often, fears set in. If we can live without that fear, or if we can work to overcome that fear, think of what love brings us. Acts of kindness, patience, forgiveness – so many Christian virtues are second nature when one is in right relationship, and the sole motivation shared is love of the other. We are simply seeking to imitate God’s love for us as manifested in Christ Jesus.

What do we gain when we manifest Christ’s love?

Russian literature has something to teach us in that respect.

Somehow in college, I thought it was a good idea to take a course in Russian literature. It was, but I worked quite hard in that class (one of the few times I assure you).

One of the classics we read was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. In the translation we read, the story is of a stingy old woman who sought to get away from the misery of hell (“lake of fire”) where she found herself after she had died. She wanted to be raised to the comforts and joys of heaven. “I wasn’t all THAT bad” she asserts to an angel passing by. “What about the time when the poor beggar came to my door, and I gave him an onion?”

The angel hovers just above the old woman (think of the scenes of Scrooge’s life or George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life), as they look back upon that scene from her life. The woman had resentfully come to the back door of her grand mansion (in some versions she’s actually a peasant woman – remember that things offer differ in context and translation) to shoo the beggar away, complaining loudly about the filthiness of his hands and face. “You don’t even wash before you come to beg?” Nonetheless, the woman reached down into the bottom of her cupboard and produced a rotting onion that she handed over to the beggar.

“Well,” said the angel, “that should be enough to open the doors of heaven for you.” The angel lowered  a rope with that very onion tied to its end. The woman grabbed on; but as the rope is lifted, others in the lake of fire climb on, hoping to be pulled out as well. The old woman, alarmed by this, cries out, “I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.” And just as soon as she said that the onion broke and the woman fell back into the lake [of fire]”.[5]

If only the old woman had had it in her heart to say, “The onion is ours,” I think that surely the onion would have been strong enough to have pulled all of them out together. That’s the allegory and that’s the essence of agape love.

There is insight in this story, echoing the same wisdom as the teaching of Jesus in our gospel for today. Jesus is set upon by the Pharisees, who for all their earnestness, have traversed far from what James would call religion that is “pure and undefiled before God.” They care earnestly about their religion, but they need to have other things in focus.

What Jesus was calling them and us to remains far simpler, and is, in the end, something that everyone, I think, understands and cares about.

It is what comes from inside, from the center of our hearts, that transforms our hearts and the hearts and lives of those we encounter.

When our lives are truly converted by God’s Spirit, what God yearns for us to know in our relationship with God and one another will be second nature to us. When our lives are truly converted by God’s Spirit, we become doers of the word. Let it never be said of us, “you have abandoned the commandments of God.”

Remember that life is short. We do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. Very simply: let us be quick to love and be quick to be kind. And the blessing of God will be received and given, in our relationship with others and with God each day. Let us remember to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers of the word.

[1] James 1:17, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV)

[2] Cf. James 22-23

[3] Cf. Song of Solomon 2:8-10, 12

[4] Psalm 45:1

[5] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: Illustrated (Evergreen Classics), Kindle Edition, Location 7497-7514 (Accessed August 27, 2021).

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