A juicy Georgia peach, a crisp Michigan apple. Fascinating fruit captures our senses and gives us a foretaste of its sweetness and delights. I sometimes anticipate fruit so excitedly that I fail to wash it before I eat it. I feel like I should add the disclaimer, don’t try this at home. And then, parents, you may be familiar with the ‘five-second rule’, an allowance that if food falls to the ground and you pick it up within five seconds, it’s still clean enough to eat.
In our gospel reading, Mark tells us about the Pharisees’ commitment to their cleansing rituals. They do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it. They are confused that the disciples are eating with unclean hands. In my childhood, I remember homes with the maxim, ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, emblazoned prominently in cross-stitch.
The Pharisees had a similar belief system, thinking that if they could keep everything ritually pure….the community could retain proximity to God. The traditions that they followed were designed to preserve and protect the integrity of their unique community in the midst of warring empires. Jesus takes issue with adherence to the purity standards when they begin to harm those whom they were originally designed to protect, and cause those on the margins to be overlooked and neglected.
You may have thought that Song of Songs was the scandalous part of today’s readings, but the Gospels can get down and dirty, too. The lectionary conveniently leaves out the verses when Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes into the sewer?” Jesus has to be really explicit to help the disciples understand, the food you that eat (clean or dirty) will eventually be flushed down the toilet. But, Jesus also says, the evil intentions of the human heart are not expelled so easily. Don’t worry about dirty fruit, but be concerned with an impure heart. Although they argued about the solution, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on the problem: something about the human condition is dirty and needs to be cleaned.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” The Song of Songs has been inducing blushes and awkward laughter from congregations for centuries. It is also called ‘the greatest song’, ‘the song of Solomon’, or the ‘song of songs, which is Solomons’. I prefer the title Song of Songs because it allows for a diversity of voices. After all, it’s mostly the woman we hear from anyway! Rabbi Akiva referred to the book as “the Holiest of Holies” and interpreted it as an “extended allegory to the loving relationship between God and Israel”. Early church father, Origen, argued for a purely spiritual reading of the text as the marriage relationship between Christ and the Church. Mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote 86 sermons on just the first three chapters which explored the intimate love between God and the human soul. These are valid and important interpretations, but my sense is that maybe we should just read the text for what it is – erotic love poetry.
Raisins, apples, pomegranates, figs, vineyards, gardens, these fruitful images abound. The woman exclaims, “Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits.” It doesn’t take much imagination to get a sense of her mood. Springtime, with its abundance and fecundity, has arrived. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”
As readers we are invited to hear, see, smell, taste and touch…appealing to our bodies to enjoy the fascinating fruits of life. The language of this poem suggests that fruit, once ripe, is to be savored and enjoyed. This outlook sees the fruits of life as fascinating and beautiful, which stands in stark contrast to the Phariseeical outlook that seems to find uncleanliness everywhere. Here there is no mention of dirt, or worry of defilement, only pure delight in God’s creation.
And sex! That thing we’ve been told to hide under a rock. Well, not here! Sex is euphemized, celebrated, alluded to, anticipated, and enjoyed. It’s reminiscent of another garden, where God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply.” We are told that physical love, once ready, can be a beautiful thing. Song of Songs calls us to orient ourselves to the beauty of God’s creation and experience how good it really is. And it really is good! But still… reveling in the beauty of fruit and springtime sounds wonderful, but how can we enjoy (or even find) beauty in the midst of such an ugly world?
We are all too aware of the evils of humanity as more and more reports of sex abuse scandals are revealed, wars ravage the globe, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few while the many struggle for survival, basic human dignity seems to be thrown by the wayside. We become overwhelmed by the ways in which we fail…as individuals and communities. We desire pure hearts and minds. Psalm 51 comes to mind, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” The knowledge of our dirtiness, linked to that fascinating fruit in the garden of Eden, remains a source of struggle. We wrestle with the same problem of the Pharisees: something is dirty. How shall we be made clean?
We could imagine God as a fantastic gardener, slowly walking through her garden with a floppy hat and cotton gloves, tenderly planting and caring for each seedling and vine. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther claims, “The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it.” Let us participate in God’s creative work by cultivating the heart space for growth. Let us develop an orientation toward beauty that allows us to envision God’s perfect garden. Like Jesus exhorts, let us become less concerned about the dirt on our hands and more aware of the motives of our hearts. In every action, we ask: What moves us toward beauty? We know what fruitfulness looks like, so we know where we need to be headed. It’s laid out in Galatians: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace. The fruit of the Spirit is patience, kindness, generosity. The fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We are no longer exiled from the Garden. We are perpetually renewed and restored through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As Craig reminded us last week, God dwells within each of us. God’s implanted word, in the person of Christ, takes root and lives and grows within us daily. Surely there will be weeds of discontentment and unfaithfulness, but we are never left without hope. Our dirty fruit will be replaced with God’s everlasting fruit. Until then, we tend the gardens of our hearts and allow for the beauty of God’s creation to spring forth. Amen.