Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and The Song of Solomon 2:8-13, 15th after Pentecost, by Rev. Kristin Philipson
The music you just heard was part of an art installation called the Forty Part Motet by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff. I visited the installation five years ago when it was on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Picture forty speakers mounted on microphone stands in a perfect circle with each speaker playing a recording of an individual singer performing their individual part of the forty part motet, originally written by Thomas Tallis in 1573. I wandered in and out and around the circle, sometimes walking right up to listen to an individual voice at one of the speakers, sometimes standing right in the middle to absorb the whole. I still find myself thinking about it. There was something powerful and beautiful about all those human voices, not that they were singing in unison with each other, but that they were somehow all in perfect alignment.
I think one of summer’s gifts to us is to give us time and space to rediscover or recover proper alignment. Even if we aren’t away on vacation the longer hours of daylight alone give us more time, it would seem, to think about what brings us a sense of integrity and wholeness; that feeling of being in line, in tune, and in harmony. One of my favorite summer memories from when I was a child was just riding my bike through the back alleyways of my neighbourhood in Edmonton. It was quiet and there were no cars and I would stop and eat raspberries growing from the bushes along the back fences and driveways. I could go whatever direction I wanted, turn this way or that. I felt completely at home and relaxed and comfortable, which is one kind of integrity, one sense of wholeness, but the practice of faith asks us to expand our sense of integrity beyond personal wholeness to a kind of alignment with the Divine, a sense of wholeness in our ways and being finding communion with God’s way and Being.
The word is never used in our scripture reading but I think the crux of the debate we heard between the Pharisees and Jesus is actually about this kind of alignment; they’re arguing about integrity, about what exactly a faithful person needs to do to come into alignment with the Divine and Divine ways of being. One of the most important practices, according to the tradition of the Pharisees, was the careful handling of those things that are outside of us, the material; this careful handling of what is outside gave the Pharisees an inner sense of alignment. More important to Jesus and his followers was the practice of handling the immaterial, the contents of our hearts, for example, Jesus argued that when it comes to alignment with God and God’s ways it’s what’s inside of us that counts. Judea in the first century of our Common Era was a passionate crucible of philosophical and religious thought. Within the Hebrew tradition the Pharisees and the Essenes and the Sadducees debated and argued the finer points of the practice of faith because they cared about it and they felt there was a lot at stake in how they lived what they believed. It’s important to remember that the communities that wrote the New Testament were partial to Jesus’ arguments, so other groups taking part in religious debate are often portrayed in early Christian writings as one-dimensional character types – the heartless legalist, for example, or the blind hypocrite. But in reality members of each group were just folks who cared as much about faith and about aligning themselves with God to the best of their abilities as Jesus and his disciples.
In Roman-occupied Judea many locals had consciously aligned their identities and practices with those of their Roman occupiers in order to blend in and curry favour among the authorities – even Temple priests had begun to wear togas, which were considered to be Roman dress. In response the Pharisees advocated a bold and unabashed counter-alignment. “Pharisee” is the Greek word for the Hebrew, “perushim,” which means “separate ones,” or “separatists.” Strict adherence to codes of purity helped them to see themselves as a distinct and different people, a covenant people, in pursuit of alignment with the One they worshipped; not an all-powerful Caesar, but the all-powerful God, a God who calls out oppression and stands with those who suffer and who demands the care of the orphan and the widow, the foreigner and the poor. The point of religious practice, the Pharisees might have said, is to set oneself apart from a corrupt and corrupting world, and to realign oneself with God’s love and justice.
“[T]hey noticed that some of [Jesus’] disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (Mk 7:2) and so they called Jesus out: Who did he think he was, anyway? A Roman? “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” they asked (Mk 7:5). Jesus “called the crowd again and said to them, ‘…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’” (Mk 7:14,15, 21).
More than 2000 years have passed but the debate about how best to align with God continues – in fact, I saw it play out on the pages of the Globe and Mail this summer. In one opinion piece a professor of English Literature at the University of Toronto who happens to be a practicing Catholic wrestled with what a Christian should buy when he went to replace an old BBQ spatula at Canadian Tire. He was essentially concerned with a Pharisaic kind of question; he was concerned about how to handle what is outside of us and how this contributes to an inner sense of alignment. How and what can a faithful person consume in good conscience; what can a faithful person consume without being defiled the consumption? Does the consumption of cheap goods, for example, made by underpaid workers to filter profits to corporate CEOs and shareholders sully one’s hands? Or is it enough to say, as Jesus does, that nothing that goes into a person can defile them? And did Jesus mean to include cheaply-made goods in his pronouncement? When it comes to our sense of integrity, to our pursuit of alignment, what matters more: how we handle what’s outside of us, or how we handle what’s on the inside?
We have an Eastern Redbud tree in our backyard that, for a number of reasons, has never been able to grow straight and tall on its own. It has a thin and spindly trunk compared to its long and leafy branches so that even in its first few years of life in our yard it would stoop over. We put a kind of collar on it, an old piece of garden hose with rope run through it, and hoisted its trunk upright and it immediately regained its alignment. Now it stands tall like a dancer, its branches stretched out like strong arms. It’s a perspective not unique to Christianity but shared by all faith traditions, that religious practices are like those tree collars, providing support to our core; that it’s these practices, how we handle what’s outside of us and how we handle the inner world of our emotions that brings us into proper alignment and helps us grow to our fullest potential. But, in keeping with the spirit of debate that both Jesus and the Pharisees revered, I would argue that there is a practice even more fundamental when it comes to right alignment, a step that comes even before we get caught up in the intricacies of handling material and immaterial things. We got a visual for it – an image – in the reading we heard from the Song of Solomon.
“We sing of the Creator,” it says in the United Church of Canada’s Song of Faith, a Creator “who made humans to live and move and have their being in God.” The Song of Solomon is a straight-up love poem, but since it’s been canonized in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles church tradition has tried to read it as an allegory for the relationship between God and the human soul, with God as the beloved and our souls as the object of God’s love. In the Church we interpret, “The voice of my beloved,” as God’s voice. When we hear the words, “My beloved speaks to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…” We can hear it as God’s words of invitation to our hearts and souls. According to the Song of Solomon, when it comes to the pursuit of integrity – when it comes to the quest for alignment between ourselves and God, the very first step is not to worry about what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, but to accept an invitation: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” It’s in God’s companionship and company of God that we find the discipline to challenge and critique what’s corrupt in our world, like the Pharisees, and the discipline to challenge and critique what’s corrupt in our own hearts, like followers of Jesus. “God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description,” we read in A Song of Faith, “yet, in love, the one eternal God seeks relationship.”
It’s been five years and I still think about that art installation I shared with you – the Forty Part Motet – I think because it spoke to me about the transcendent; about progressing beyond the ordinary and into the exceptional. For me it was a metaphor, another way of picturing our souls and the Divine and what they are together. Each voice had its own part to sing in the overall song but what held the individual voices together was there alignment with a common score. The singers may not have been aware when they were each recorded of what their part contributed to the whole; but what beauty and profundity and perspective they added to our planet simply because they accepted the invitation to sing. They accepted an invitation to sing their part and so were brought into alignment with a Forty Part Motet. This weekend I’m looking at our world as a beautiful, complex, symphonic score composed by the Creator, a difficult and challenging Creation that requires the careful handling of what’s outside of us and what’s inside of us, an inviting universe – Arise, my love, my fair one, and come with me, the Creator calls to each one of us. There is a song to sing and a part that has been written just for you.