The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series B: 2017-2018

by Sigridur Gudmarsdottir

 

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost in 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

 

The God who grafts

One of the collect prayers of the late summer season includes this beautiful sentence: “Graft in our hearts the love of your name.” Many times have I uttered these words in front of the altar without paying much attention to the vocabulary of grafting. I have understood the message to be kind and merciful, but never thought about how the prayer specifically asks God to graft and cultivate the garden. In original Latin, the prayer reads Insere pectoribus nostris amorem tui nominis. Like the English verb to graft, the Latin verb insere portrays the insertion of a shoot or bud to a new plant. The verb can portray a surgeon implanting flesh. As a metaphor, it can also denote union.

 

Interestingly, the same word applies for actions in horticulture and surgery. Surgical grafting needs to be extraordinarily clean and anaesthetized. Horticultural grafting is messy and one is likely to get dirt under the fingernails. I would like to envision a messy God with muddy fingers that grafts love like vegetables and flowers upon our hearts. The fingers trim and caress the fragile shootings in the soil. The messy God who grafts pays close attention to weather and climate. The God with dirt under her fingernails cares about plants and soil.

 

I propose that we use the muddy metaphors of the God who grafts from the Collect prayer as an interpretive tool to the texts for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The first reading from the Song of Solomon opens with the voice of the beloved bridegroom. The groom tries to persuade his love to arise from her bed, because nature is in full bloom. He draws her attention to the weather and gives a detailed weather report indicating that the cold of winter has receded and the heavy rain is no longer falling. The beloved invites his bride to a feast for all senses, the birds are singing and the vineyard is pregnant with fragrance. Likewise, the response from Psalm 45 spreads fragrances from myrrh, aloes and cassia.

 

If the texts from the Hebrew Scriptures invite us into a late summer bliss of singing birds and robust smells, the epistle takes us back to grafting. Much in the same fashion as the beatitudes, the epistle of James exhort us to act morally by being quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, because all gifts come from God. Instead of being angry, James invites his readers to receive with meekness the implanted word of God. The implanted (emphyton in Greek) translated into the Latin Vulgate as insitum that derives from the same verb as the collect prayer that I have already mentioned, insere, to graft, to implant.

 

The God who grafts needs the sprouts, twigs and buds to participate in the grafting. In order for the grafting to be successful, many environmental factors must be in place, warmth, light, wind, water level, plant, soil, weed, birds and animals and so forth. Erosion affects some areas of the world deeply and makes it extraordinary hard for the soil to stay in place. Erosion is one of the strongest environmental threats to the fertile grounds of my native country Iceland. The winds are fierce in the Arctic areas, and the Icelandic volcanos produce lava, which wear down the fragile soil. Sheep have been an erosive agent for many centuries, and so has the draining the bogs and wetlands in order to gain farmable land that started in the last century. Tourism has grown in Iceland in the 21st century and caused much traffic in fragile highland areas. Even though driving off the beaten track is strictly forbidden, many choose to do it, thereby leaving deep and irreversible wounds in the fragile flora.

 

Which brings me to the Gospel text in Mark 7. The Pharisees and the scribes are shocked to learn that the disciples of Jesus are eating with defiled hands and not according to the customary purity rituals. Jesus answers: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” By this, Jesus affirms the validity and goodness of creation. He clarifies that when he speaks about “filth,” that filth has little to do with the gift of soil, but rather moral depravity. Perhaps one might add to the long list of moral depravities in the gospel text the depravity of not caring about soil.

 

In the article “The Good Earth“ in Best Preaching on Earth: Sermons on Caring for Creation (1996), Paul Brand takes us to one of the rice paddies that grew close to his home in the mountains. Brand describes how the rice fields were terraced into a stream with tiny channels of water leading from the higher fields into the lower. By this method, the people in the hills ensured that the fields were constantly wet; they would attract small animals such as frogs and herons, and the soil did not wash away. Brand recounts that he and his friends liked to chase the frogs in the fields, tramp the seedlings, and churn up the mud. As an old man, Brand still remembers an old man who served as the keeper of the dams. They would call him Tata, which Brand explains means grandfather. When Tata saw what the boys had done he scooped mud into his hand. He explained to the boys that this mud produced enough rice to feed one person and had the capacity to do so year after year and generation after generation. But when the mud became muddy water, the soil was on the move. Brand says: 

Tata wanted to make sure we all got the message. Leaning on his staff, he straightened his back as far as he could, so he could look at each and every one of us. “When you see mud running in the streams of the water, you know that life is running out of the mountains. It will never come back.“ He turned and began to limp away softly repeating to himself, “It will never come back.“ (172)

The God who grafts is a God who cares about erosion and soil that vanishes. The God who grafts invites us to a feast for all senses, to the fertile ground that feeds us. The God who grafts has dirty hands because soil is life and no one grafts without it in the environment.

 

When James speaks about the gift received in the implanted word, I am tempted to think about the gift of soil. In this soil, the word of God can blossom and without it there is no life and no salvation. Soil is the life of the mountains. Love needs mud to grow food. The implanted word of God takes place in an environment, where mires must be reclaimed. And if we lose the mud because of our follies and off road driving, Tata reminds us that it may not come back.

 

Sigridur Gudmarsdottir.  Sigridur.gudmarsdottir@uit.no.

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