Scripture readings: Psalm 45; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s scripture readings, absent the psalm which is said to extoll the beauty of the King on his wedding day, are a fairly dour, or at least demanding lot. Their burden is evident.

James calls stridently for a ministry aimed straight at the benefit of the poor and disadvantaged. If we are not for them, we are for nothing. Religion is of no moment and no purpose if it does not set us on the paths of caring for others within our hearts and with our every act.

Mark points out the forms of religious observance in his day. Ritual washings (as opposed to practicing basic cleanliness) were required of people before and after many activities in daily life. If you were not ritually cleansed you could not come before God or people. Everything and everyone would be contaminated by your unholiness.

It is not, says Mark’s Jesus, our rituals that keep our world and our relations pure. It is what comes out of our hearts and minds that shapes our actions and determines our world’s course.

I felt, after attending a meeting about a Women’s Shelter in Cairnsmore last week, ready and willing and able to take a current, local example and bring it into relevant harmony with scripture. Especially these ones.

Neighbours attending the meeting at the Guide Hall had been worried, distrustful and outright hostile to a shelter for homeless women in their neighbourhood. Women who were noted proponents of peace, love and kindness in their treatment of children expressed themselves reluctantly opposed to providing temporary shelter for women who were without a home.

Some said they were worried about women who were addicts coming into an area where children would see them, or their abusive pursuers. Some said there were already a lot of lost, addicted, pursued women in the neighbourhood. They didn’t want any more. Nor were they ready to accept the fact that most homeless people are not addicts. That homeless women come from a range of social backgrounds and circumstances. Elderly women evicted from rental accommodations whose cost was too steep for them to pay on the death of a partner or the sale of their rented home. Younger working women who could not afford safe housing. Women suffering the effects of fetal alcohol, women with brain injuries, women with mental health conditions that impeded their ability to make their way in the world. Abused women. Wounded women. Women suffering great harm in the world.

When they heard that Cowichan Women Against Violence had been asked to run the shelter because they know about trauma and how to offer help to traumatized women they were not reassured. Instead some went off on another flight of fear. Traumatized women. In our neighbourhood. Near our children? Near our homes? Never!

There were a number of people at the meeting who wanted to reach out and help homeless women in our community. But they were not the majority. It was, for the women trying to find a home for homeless, traumatized women, a very discouraging meeting.

Armed with Mark and James, I was ready stand here before you and be relevant to our times with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

There was, however, another scripture set for today’s reading. One I had decided not to use, because I could not see how to weave it into this story. I often find myself most trapped in darkness just before the light begins to dawn.

The scripture comes out of the part of the bible we know as the Old Testament, the part of the book my teachers called the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a controversial book, maybe even the most controversial. Not because it counsels levelling cities, or killing babies, or enslaving thousands, or destroying entire populations, or attacking people when they are the most vulnerable, or employing lies or trickery or deceit to get your way. No, it’s far more upsetting than that. It’s a thinly disguised celebration of human love. It’s a poem written between lovers about a love that many have known. A love that takes us up, sweeps us off our feet and carries us away on clouds of rapture.

What is that kind of love doing in the bible? Some scholars think it’s there to remind us that love can sweep us away, can cause us to be so elevated by another and so elevated in another that we occupy, for a moment in time, a place akin to heaven on earth. To assure us that, as we can be this for one another, so we can be this for God. So is God for us.

In the Song of Solomon, at Chapter 2:8-13 we hear the voices of love’s poets:

The voice of my beloved!
    Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
    bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
    or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
    behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
    looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away.

Reading those words reminded me of another’s testimony after that meeting in the Guide Hall. A woman who’d gone through her own trauma in our community, many years ago. A teenager locked out of her home by her mom who sought to medicate her mental health demons with alcohol. Cast out of home, taken in by friends and neighbours who became her forever family.

Her first marriage turning into a nightmare of abuse, she was taken in again, nurtured by friends and family, cared for by community, brought out of darkness, into light, warmth and assurance.

“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away”

Grown into a strong, capable, compassionate woman she serves on our school board, helps to ensure that dozens of kids find their feet through Chalkboard Theatre, here in our church, every Monday night of the school year. She’s the stage manager of the play I’m in with the Mercury Theatre Players, and does a lot more in the community than I’ll ever know. Homeless, abused, alone, frightened and cast out by those that should have loved her most, she sees herself as living testimony to the ability of loving community to nurture and care for one of its own.

Saddened by some of the responses at the meeting, including a man who’d known her all her life, all the story she’d lived, who told her he wouldn’t support the shelter even if he knew it was for her, she wrote her story, posted it on social media and has watched in amazement as it has been shared far and wide to acclaim, praise and thanksgiving in the community and beyond. Calling us to be the love she knows we are. Calling us as James does, as Jesus does. Calling us into a world characterized by what comes out of our hearts, by uplifting love.

In those moments after a meeting where former friends and neighbours did all they could to remind her that, as a woman who had been homeless, abused and victimized by those struggling with mental health and addiction she had no right, no worth, no value in the neighbourhood; was, rather, a creature to be feared or loathed or dreaded; one to be cast out and shunned and pilloried – in those moments some in our community did their best to set her into the place they fear and will not enter. In those moments she dug deep into her own history:

“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away with me.”

James demands we care for one another, that we live our lives as we are called to live them. Speak the gospel always, using words only if absolutely necessary.”

In Mark, Jesus reminds us that what we carry inside of us defines our world, shapes our response, gives life to our community.

In Solomon’s Song we are reminded of love that carries all before her, washing over and away all preconceptions, rituals, beliefs and practices. Lifting in joy’s high tide the light of love over, through and around, in all ways, on all days.

“Arise, my love, my fair one and come away with me.”

What do we carry inside ourselves? What do we wish to give others to carry inside of themselves?

May we be carried aloft on the wings of those who find us beloved. May we carry others as well. May there be a community in love for each of us.

A place of love, of welcome, of shelter from the storm.

A place in God and neighbourhood.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me.”

Let us pray…