Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
I have to tell you that I have struggled this week. To be honest, I have felt at a loss for words, which you know is not typical of me. It’s not that God hasn’t spoken. She has spoken volumes through her tears, the tears of a mother. I started in one place and you will hear some of that riff on the theme “What’s love got to do with?” But more and more I heard not Tina Turner but Roberta Flack asking plaintive “Where is the love?”
In recent months, we have been bombarded by chants of “Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter.” But the events of the last few weeks make them seem like nothing more than rhetoric. They are shooting and killing babies on the streets of Cleveland while the body of a child seeking shelter from the storms of war and oppression washes up on a beach in Turkey.
I know that I feel helpless in the face of these mounting tragedies. How can such things happen in a supposedly civilized world, especially to the innocent and defenseless ones? Where is the love and where is Jesus in all of this? Last week the answer to Jesus’ question “who do you say I am?” was the messiah, the embodiment of God’s love, compassion and grace. Our concern this week is what that means for us in a world in which love and compassion seem in short supply. We could rightly ask not just “where is the love”, but “What’s love got to do with it anyway?” At the heart of today’s lessons as Jesus teaches about ministry and about what discipleship ought to look like, I think the answer is love is absolutely everything!
When I look around what I see is a world in which Jesus’ prime directive to love God and love others gets lost in the noise from voices that say doctrine or profit or position trumps love (and I didn’t do that on purpose). We see it in the hateful speech about immigrants and women and the poor that passes for legitimate political dialogue. We see it in Kentucky and the fight over marriage equality. Rather than talk of abundance we talk of building walls or erect real life barbed wire barriers believing that we can isolate ourselves, keeping the cares of the world out of sight and thus out of mind. We see it in a world in which we seem to cherish the life of the unborn more than we care for or cherish the lives of the children among us. And this is not about being pro-life or pro-choice; it’s about love and about caring for those among us. With nearly 20 million children around the world living in orphanages or on the street and 60% of children surveyed indicating that they were directly or indirectly exposed to violence it is clear that we are we living our lives to please ourselves rather than to please God.
Where is the love in that picture… A picture of a world in which the prevailing belief is that there is not enough space or time or money or you fill in the blank for anyone or anything but ourselves... A picture of a world in which young people, supposedly our future, seem more afraid of living than dying?
It is a picture of a world in which there is not enough concern or compassion for others and not enough thought about justice or peace. This image is in sharp contrast to that of Jesus placing a child among the disciples to instruct them on love the true way of discipleship. The message seems clear. A little child shall lead us. But this week, where will the sight of the bodies of little ones lead us? In the face of such tragedy and need, whom are we called to be and what are we called to do?
The way of the disciple, accepting that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all & servant of all,” is not an easy path. Love is not about standing up and lording it over others or being a part of the in-crowd or the clique of the ‘saved.’
Jesus was a fanatic about love, about caring for one another and welcoming the invisible ones into community. Love is about reflecting the priorities of the God that Jesus proclaimed. Love is about stooping down and reaching back and lifting up. It’s about welcoming the voiceless and those at the margins into community even when it makes us uncomfortable.
The lesson of this week is that the other are no longer invisible because Alyan and Ramon and Major and all those clamoring for refuge from the scourge of war and poverty, oppression and death are no longer faceless or nameless. From the traffic barricades in Shaker Heights to the barbed wire at Hungary’s borders we can’t build walls high enough or deep enough to isolate ourselves from their anguish. For that anguish gives voice and meaning to Jesus’ call of welcome. If we close our hearts and minds to that voice then we are closed off from love which is the presence of God among us. I don’t know about you but I am not interested in closing the door in God’s face.
As I said in the beginning, I feel helpless, but in the face of today’s lessons no way hopeless, because love is about abundance, it’s about opened hearts and opened doors. You cannot tell me that there is not enough because God’s grace says otherwise.
So folks, I am here to tell you that we’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to do something about violence. We’ve got to do something about protecting and nurturing the innocence of children. We’ve got to do something about barriers to justice and peace. We’ve got to recognize that though God works through us, standing in judgment is not part of the job description; love is. At the end of the day when asked, “Where is the love?” I hope we can respond here in this place as we reach out to love as Christ loved and heal as Christ healed.
Rev. Peter Faass
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples.
He springs this question on them like a teacher administering a pop quiz. We might imagine their shocked expressions and their thinking. “Darn! I didn’t do my homework last night! Just WHO is this guy?”
Today’s gospel story places us at mid-point in the pithy Gospel of Mark. For the past eight chapters, Jesus has preached, taught and healed in a whirlwind tour of both Jewish and Gentile territory. He has cast out unclean spirits, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, a leper and a paralyzed man. He has eaten with tax collectors and other sinners, defying Sabbath law.
He has stilled stormy seas, healed a demoniac, raised a little girl from the dead, stopped the flow of blood in a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, and — oh, yes — fed a crowd of 20,000 people a lovely fish and crusty sourdough bread supper. Now that’s catering!
Last week, just before today’s snap question, Jesus heals the daughter of a very savvy gentile woman and then a man who was deaf and mute. His activities are so frenzied and his pronouncements about who’s embraced in God’s economy are so counter-cultural to the norms of the day that it leaves both his disciples and his adversaries’ heads swimming.
After his disciples have witnessed all he has done, he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter hits the nail on the head. "You are the Messiah,” he says.
But suddenly there is a paradigm shift. As Jesus begins to explain that being the Messiah entails suffering, rejection and death, Peter becomes horrified. “That’s not the Messiah I want!’ he thinks. “Not the Messiah I signed up for when you said ‘follow me.’”
Peter vociferously voices his objections. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus is having none of it. He is undeterred from what he knows his mission and message to be. He rebukes Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
When Jesus rebukes Peter, he is harsh but also brutally honest. In that honesty Jesus is saying, “Peter, you were right when you answered my question, saying I am the Messiah. Now you’re wrong. I cannot be that Messiah you envision and want — that warrior king who will raise up an army to overthrow Roman oppression. That is not who I am. That expectation of messiah is only to add to the violence, misery, suffering and death that already plague the world. Frankly, that image of messiah is to be no Messiah at all. I can only be the Messiah that God the Father intends me to be — the one who proclaims good news to the poor, heals the broken-hearted, gives the blind new sight, breaks the bonds of those who are persecuted and proclaims God's favor to all God’s children. It is only this Messiah that will save and redeem the world and all its brokenness.”
Theology professor Micah D. Kiel says this about the exchange between Jesus and Peter. “[It is] about identity and expectations . . . it is important that we realize that these issues are not locked in the past. This was not only a problem for the disciples or those early Christians to whom Mark is writing. Mark profiles a deeper dynamic that spans the ages: how are human knowledge and expectations in tension with the aims of God? We know the way things are, how they are supposed to go. If we believe God is active and that Jesus is alive in the world, then the question posed to us is not whether we confess Jesus as the Messiah. That is the easy part. We know what the title is. The question becomes how do we misunderstand what the title means? How do our expectations not align with God’s?”
The image of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand of a Turkish beach is seared in my mind. Aylan has become the brutal, heart-rending image of the masses of refuges fleeing war-torn and economically devastated nations in the Middle East and Africa, seeking a safer and better life in the very prosperous nations of Northern and Western Europe. The desperate conditions these refugees have endured in their own troubled nations, and then at the hands of nefarious smugglers, are appalling and heart-rending.
This past week, we saw a significant change in how Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and England are dealing with the crisis pressing in on the EU’s southern borders and streaming north. These EU nations, and others, have in compassion, raised the number of people they will admit into their societies, especially those fleeing Syria. Even the United States has agreed to take 10,000 refugees into our embrace.
But the reality is, this is only a stopgap measure. And in some ways, it actually will exacerbate the refugee problem, as those people in nations torn by war, strife and hunger will be encouraged to undertake the treacherous journey for more prosperous shores, so that they and their children may also have a safer, better way of life. Who can blame them?
Which one of us would not do the same if we were in a similar predicament?
But not every person from countries rent by war, violence, famine, or despotic rulers can flee to a place that is that safer or wealthier. That is not possible, and even if it were would only add to the current chaos, fear and despair, both for the refuges and the host nations working to absorb them. While we must be compassionate and aid those who have fled, there is a greater task at hand. Compassion is not enough.
That greater task is to strive to alleviate the horrific situations in those places where people are desperate to flee from. We need to work to make those places habitable and economically secure for their native populations. Therein lies the crux of the problem. It is because they have NOT done that work, that the prosperous nations of the world find themselves facing this refuge crisis. And we face this problem because our expectations of how the world should work clearly do not align with how God expects the world to work.
Europe is overwhelmed with Middle Eastern and African refugees, and the United States is overwhelmed by Central American refugees, precisely because we have ignored the message of Jesus, the Messiah God has sent into the world for its’ salvation and redemption.
God created a world that overflows with abundance. In the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, the object lesson is that when people are hungry or in need, God has provided enough for all, with plenty left over. The world we live in is not one of scarcity where we have to hoard everything for ourselves; it is one of overflowing abundance.
We in the wealthy nations have ignored this message and in so doing we have rebuked God. Instead, we have turned to a false god who preaches a prosperity message for the few, and who allows the strong to exercise dominion over the earth’s resources to the detriment of all others. Following this god, we in the prosperous nations have frequently designed our foreign and diplomatic policies to feed that lust for wealth and power by supporting despotic regimes that allowed us to plunder those nations for their natural resources. And we did this despite the suffering wrought upon native populations as a result of our doing so.
Our belief in a false messiah has led us to this juncture of the refugee crisis. We may try to pass this off as good economic and diplomatic policy, and we may try to pass it off as God’s will, but it is neither. It is a false expectation. Our false expectations lead to what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “the extraction system.” This is a system run by the economic and political elites who do all in their power to extract every last bit of resource they can out of the rest of the world’s population to satisfy their own greed and lust. And while the extraction system is a lot of things, it is definitely not of God.
When we rebuke God to be the way we want - which is as a warmonger, or an enabler of our sinful behaviors, or worse yet, as a benign entity who lets us do as we please - and we do not live in the manner that God calls us to in Jesus, we suffer the consequences. God’s will won’t be thwarted and we pay the price.
This is an object lesson Jesus is teaching us when he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
This question will be increasingly asked of us as the globe grows flatter. This question will compel us to examine our behaviors of wanton consumption, greed and dismal stewardship of the earth. It will be asked of us as we determine who we will vote for to lead us in the halls of government. It will be asked of us as we confront the growing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our own country.
How we respond to Jesus’ question is of critical importance. In God’s reign, we are called to work for justice and peace for all God’s people, recognizing the Christ in every human being. The messiah we follow will determine our ability to do that and the lives we lead. And not just our lives but all lives.
When Jesus asks you, “Who do you say that I am,” what will your answer be?
By setting our mind on divine things, not on human things, we will be led to the right answer. Then, and only then, justice and peace for all God’s children will prevail.
 https://www.workingpreacher.org, “Commentary on Mark 8:27-38,” September 13, 2015
Song of Songs 2:8-17; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Rev. Peter Faass
Today our Hebrew Testament reading is a selection from the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. This short Biblical book of a mere eight chapters is a collection of love poems. It has been attributed to King Solomon because his name is mentioned several times, although the dating of the writing is uncertain and therefore its authorship is as well.
In these poems a woman and a man make mutual declarations of love to one another. Each delights in describing the physical charms that enamor them. In chapter 1, verse 15, the man exclaims, “Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.” And in chapter 2, verse 9 the woman proclaims, “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows.”
Throughout the book a delicate mood of love, devotion, sensuality, and even at times eroticism is maintained. Certainly the use of metaphor to describe human sensuality is rich in its imagery. In chapter 4, verse 5 the man writes, “Your two breasts are like fawns, twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.”
The Church has long been embarrassed by the unabashed sensuality and eroticism in this series of love poems. Some of the early Church fathers, and later many Calvinists, wanted to purge Song of Songs from the Biblical canon due to its erotic qualities.
Interestingly these puritanical minds never called to edit out the violent texts in the Bible, only the ones about human love and sexuality. Clearly the old adage, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," applies here. How often are religious people today squeamish about human sexuality and love, but benignly accepting of the rampant violence that infects our culture? Too often, I would say.
Song of Songs is a call to love. Scholars are divided as to whether Song of Songs’ poems describe the love between two human beings or are metaphorical, describing the love between God and God’s people. As many of you know, I am not a Biblical literalist and so I am open to hearing these poems either way. Why limit the way God, through the text, can speak to us and enrich our spiritual lives? And frankly, these poems incarnate holy truths either way you read them.
Yet, if you want to be a Biblical Sherlock Holmes, a clue indicating that the poems are actually about the love between two human beings is that the name God is not used at all in Song of Songs. Along with the Book of Ruth, they are the only two books in scripture to not mention God at all. And yet both are rich with the holy truths of God.
Finding and expressing love is high on the list of human priorities. It’s why the recent movement to legalize same-sex marriage was so important. Healthy, mutual, committed, loving relationships between two adults are a critical component of human life. Legitimizing and sanctifying two people in marriage honors, upholds and sustains that love.
Ask anyone in a happy marriage and they’ll tell you, there is nothing like it. We might very well ask Anne and Bob Elliott, who celebrate their 50th anniversary and are renewing their sacred wedding vows this morning, if this isn’t the case. Whether it is love’s first blush or the seasoned love of having lived and loved for decades, committed lovers would have it no other way. Anne and Bob are witnesses to this truth. We at Christ Church see this all the time in their love for each other, a love that has endured and grown richer over a half century.
But, as the immortal and seductive voice of Barry White once crooned, “Love ain’t easy.” The truth is, lovers can’t take their love for granted, just like we humans cannot take for granted our loving relationship with God. Love and relationship take hard work, or maybe better put, nurturing.
In the Church, we make vows to be totally committed to that nurturing: a couple to each other in their wedding ceremony, and as individuals, to God in the baptismal covenant. In the later these vows call us to persevere in our relationship with God and when we have failed in our endeavors to repent and return to God. In the wedding vows we commit to love, honor and keep one another, in sickness and in health and forsaking all others be faithful as long as we live.
This wedding vow is something our culture poignantly needs to be reminded of, especially in light of the recent Ashley Madison website scandal, where millions of people have forgotten – or set aside - the hard work of love, ignoring their vows to be faithful to their spouse.
Love ain’t easy. It requires constant cultivation of the relationship soil so that mutual conversation, intimacy and trust can thrive. This is a sacred endeavor, achieved through mindfulness of and attentiveness to the other. We do this – as Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel – being doers of the word, and not merely hearers; ever mindful that it is what comes out of the human heart that allows us to succeed - or fail - at love and relationship. This is not occasional work; we endeavor to do it daily, hourly and even on a minute-to-minute basis. It is our life’s task. Most importantly, we do this sacrificially — a seemingly alien concept these days — setting aside our own needs because we highly value our love for our beloved.
Another key detail to note in Song of Songs is that the woman’s voice predominates over that of the man’s, appearing just under 75% of the time in the poems. Her voice is heard clearly and in a positive light. Those of you who have some understanding of the scriptures know this is unusual. All too often, women in the Bible are seen in a negative light or no light at all. Eve, Bathsheba, Jezebel, Mary Magdalene and many other women are portrayed as problematic and even inferior characters. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is only seen in a positive light (well, except when she is the nagging Jewish mother in the Wedding at Cana story) because she is generally characterized as being meek, mild and compliant: Just what the male patriarchy likes women to be.
One scholar theorizes that, “perhaps [Song of] Songs was included [in the Bible] to counter the many references comparing the adulterous woman [in scripture] to Israel’s idolatry in its relationship with God. What better way to make that contrast than a positive portrayal of an intimate relationship with the woman’s voice preeminent?”
This interpretation of the book makes Song of Songs a unique gift to us.
We live in a time when music, movies, the media, advertising and many of our political leaders simultaneously extol and exploit love. These images are often distorted, abusive, misogynistic, and titillating.
Simultaneously, we live in a time when we need women’s shelters to protect women and their children from domestic and family violence. We live in a time when human sex trafficking rivals the drug trade for illegal financial gain. We live in a time when women around the globe are kidnapped, raped, disrespected, physically mutilated, sold like chattel and murdered if they don’t acquiesce.
These horrific situations do not portray love. Rather they speak of violence, subjugation, abuse and inferiority. All of which have nothing to do with love.
We need the Song of Songs. We need the Song of Songs to remind us that women are as equally created in the image of a loving God as men. We need Song of Songs to remind us that mutual, respectful, faithful, sensual love between two human beings is a gift from God.
As we celebrate Anne and Bob’s love for each other, today is a lovely day to hear the Song of Songs and its words of intimacy and fidelity. We need to hear the Song of Songs every day. We need to hear voices like those of the man and the woman in the scripture, and of Anne and Bob, and of all people who are truly, deeply in love. We need them in word and deed to speak boldly out of their hearts of what true love is, and of its holiness. We need them to do this because we need to be reminded of what love can be.
 Alphonetta Wines, Pastor, Bible Scholar, and Theologian, Dido United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, Texas
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.