Sermon by Jay Stanton: “Constructing and Dismantling the Binary of Curse and Blessing”

This sermon was preached by friend of the House, Jay Stanton, at KAM Isaiah here in Hyde Park:

R’eh 5772

Jay Stanton

Constructing and Dismantling the Binary of Curse and Blessing

This week’s parashah opens by challenging us to visualize an amazing scene.  Commanding us to see, the portion starts with the word r’eh:

“See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.  When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal – both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.” (New JPS translation)

This passage seems to present us with a binary between blessing and curse:  two mountains separated by a valley full of Israelites.  On one, we recite all the blessings of life, and on the other, all the curses.  Up one slope, we place everything good: prosperity, abundance, compassion; up the opposite slope, we place everything evil: hatred, violence, famine.  So we choose blessing, reject curse, and only good things happen to us for the rest of time.  Easy enough, right?

Our experiences of doing good deeds and following mitzvot have not banished evil from our midst.  Recent shooting sprees and climate scorching show that to us on a global level, and we all have personal examples of good deeds leading to bad consequences.  At face value, our world doesn’t reflect our Torah.

We constructed the binary we see between blessing and curse. This passage tells the story of its construction.  My mentor Kate Bornstein teaches that all binaries are false, and I have yet to be confronted with a counterexample.  Binaries invite us to consider their fallacy; we usually gain something from their simplification while we lose something else.  Generalizations help us build a coherent picture of our surroundings, but that picture is a lot more complicated than a mountain of curses and a mountain of blessings. When we look at the text closely, this seeming binary gets more complex.

God gives us both blessing and curse.  Moreover, both blessing and curse are present in the Promised Land.  If God wanted us to be completely free from curse, it would have been left on the other side of the Jordan, in somebody else’s land, apart, at least temporarily, from the holy people.  The Deuteronomist invites us to consider the relationship between holy people and holy space.  Yet we are required to proclaim curses within the land of Israel, the spatial realm of holiness.  Cursing is holy even when we don’t start a stream of curses with the word.  The power to curse is divine.  Made in the divine image, we share that power.

Understanding curse as a gift from God is not easy.  The predominant culture in America views God as only good, a Force repelling evil which can help you do likewise if you profess belief.  Furthermore, when religious leaders try to explain evil in the world, they often reject the notion that evil comes from God.  Instead, they blame individuals or categories of people, often ones that include me.  So, in this post-Holocaust, post-9/11 world where genocide, terrorism, and generational poverty still afflict us on a mass scale, and joblessness, grief, and illness afflict us on a personal level, we want to divorce ourselves from any discussion of reward and punishment as God-given.  Or we take God as Rewarder-and-Punisher as a fact we must believe about the divine in order to accept its existence and reject God altogether.  This perception of unfairness on God’s part is not merely an image of an unexamined popular psyche; it permeates academia as well.  We call the inconsistency “the problem of theodicy.”

What if theodicy is not a problem?  We live in a complex global society, where whether we remember to turn the lights off when we leave a room in Hyde Park affects people in Mongolia.  Hardly any action we take or choice that we make has consequences only impacting ourselves.  Bad things happen to people who are doing good things.  If God causes everything, then God is the cause of evil as well as good.  By presuming that God works on a merit system, we have trouble explaining suffering in the world.  I recently finished the book The Jew in the Lotus, in which Rodger Kamenetz describes his experience as a witness to interfaith dialogue between Jews and Tibetan Buddhists including the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  Kamenetz relates a conversation about suffering between a Jew who spent time as a Buddhist and a Buddhist who was raised as a Jew.  Buddhists try to explain why suffering occurs and how we can eliminate it.  Jews acknowledge its existence and strive to live with it on a daily basis.  We don’t try to explain away our suffering; we ask what we can do to alleviate pain.

God invites us to recognize curse and blessing as extremes.  We in the valley, or the Midwest, can’t actually live on Mount Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, either in fact or metaphorically.  Unlike the sages of Monty Python, we can’t always look on the bright side of life.  Curse and blessing surround us, and they are often not separable on distinct mountains.  A friend dies, and we realize how deeply we were impacted by her presence.  We move to a new place to pursue new opportunities, and we leave our home behind.  We use the extremes of blessing and curse to make sense of our own lives.  Most of the time, we experience both simultaneously.  Yet we navigate our world using the landmarks of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

Often, we take this navigation system as a law.  We are overeager to call one thing a blessing and something else a curse, using our own value system to place more situations at one extreme or another than actually belong there.  We forget that both blessing and curse are gifts, and we forget that the power of each stems from its relationship to the other and their mutual juxtaposition.  They help us choose to live rightly.  They help us do tikkun olam.  The presence of both blessing and curse gives us the opportunity to bring blessing to the parts of society or our lives that we view as cursed.  When we feel we are only blessed and not cursed, the presence of both curse and blessing argues against complacency.  God gave us blessing and curse in distinction to each other so we can be agents of change in our own lives and in our world.

The rabbinic tradition suggests that we say one hundred blessings throughout the day.  Forty is a big number in Judaism, and one hundred is two-and-a-half times bigger; the task seems overwhelming.  However, we are encouraged to say blessings over the small things in life.  We say blessings over drinking a glass of water, eating, seeing a great scholar – all daily activities in Hyde Park. We pepper our day with blessings to remind us that they are present to us in the midst of the curses and that we can invoke a blessing whenever necessary.

Blessings themselves aren’t necessarily all good, either.  A Midrash teaches us that two angels are sent to follow us on Shabbat.  One is evil, and one is good. When we keep Shabbat, the good one shares the blessing, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.”  When we break Shabbat, the evil one says, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.”  Tonight, I want to offer a different blessing.
In the Jewish calendar, we are in a period of reflection and self-examination.  Tomorrow night we begin the month Elul.  We take the month to start our process of t’shuvah, repentance, to get ready for the High Holidays.  We are involved in a process of reconciliation with God, moving from the pain of Tisha B’av – which commemorates the destruction of the Temple and other national tragedies – to the joy of Simjat Torah.  So my blessing for us tonight is this: may we be different next week than we are this week, and may we be different next year than we are this year.  In the coming year, may we navigate our lives juxtaposing blessing and curse.  May we use our awareness of God’s gifts of curse and blessing to shine light in dark places.  And that way, may we bring more peace and wholeness – sh’leimut – to the world.

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Sermon at the Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate of Ben Varnum

Stacy Alan
Sermon at the Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate of Ben Varnum
Feast of All Saints
St. Chrysostom’s Church, Chicago

Two things I have to get off my chest before I get to the sermon:

1.  Being asked to preach at the ordination of a transitional deacon is like being asked to preach at a confirmation.  We do it because we’ve always done it, but we struggle to explain why.  I suspect this invitation wass not so much an honor as a trap.  So I’m not going offer an apologetic for the transitional diaconate:  as of today, Ben will be a deacon.  ‘Nuff said.

2.  For anyone who knows Ben, it seemed logical that a sermon at his deaconing should including some reference to Star Trek, but when I inquired about episodes relevant to the diaconate, he replied, “if I wanted a Star Trek sermon, I would’ve just asked Kyle Rader to do it! (Kyle is Brent House’s Anglican-sympathizing Methodist.) So, no Star Trek – or Stargate Atlantis or Firefly or Battlestar Galactica.

However, in the first episode of the fifth season of the new Dr. Who, we learn that an escaped alien convict known as Prisoner Zero has been hiding for 12 years in the house of one Amelia Pond, unbeknownst to her.  The Doctor (who, for the uninitiated, is a sort of time-traveling, reincarnating trickster-hero, and kind of Jesus-like) has just realized this and they have the following dialogue:

DOCTOR:  How many rooms?

OFFICER:  I’m sorry, what?

DOCTOR:  On this floor. How many rooms on this floor? Count them for me now.


DOCTOR:  Because it will change your life.

OFFICER:  Five. (points) One, two, three, four, five.



DOCTOR:  Look.

OFFICER:  Look where?

DOCTOR:  Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look, the corner of your eye.

And, indeed, there is a sixth room, untouched and abandoned for 12 years, where the shape-shifting multiform monster has been waiting, biding her time.

This whole episode is full of the theme of seeing and not-seeing, perceiving beneath and beyond the surface, and it occurred to me that the metaphors of vision and seeing are a great frame on which to hang our understanding of orders of ministry.

All Christians are called to see in a special way:  we are called to see Christ in each other, in our neighbor, in our enemy, and in ourselves.  We are called to see the great cloud of witnesses that we celebrate today, to see the presence of the faithful, past and present (and even future), around us, not only in this space, but out in the world, supporting us, cheering us on, depending on us, waiting, with the rest of creation, . . . for the revealing of the children of God.  (They’re here even now . . .)  It is a complete vision, a deep vision, a metaphysical vision.

When we ordain brothers and sisters as deacons, priests, and bishops, one could say that we are setting them aside to focus on and pay attention to a certain kind of vision.  A bishop’s view, it seems to me, is the big picture:  one eye aimed on the past, to “the faith 
of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of 
every generation who have looked to God in hope,” and one on the future, discerning how God would have us work “for the reconciliation of the world.”  There’s a third eye, if you will allow the anatomical inaccuracy, looking at the overall wellbeing and mission of the Church as lived out in his or her diocese.

A priest’s vision is generally focused, if you will, on the ground, or on immediate surroundings:  on the life of a particular community, the care of its members, its growth in faith and service, the day to day administration of the sacraments.  There’s some glancing to the past, too, since priests are supposed to pass on the tradition of the Church, and some looking to the future as God’s call is discerned locally.

What’s a deacon’s special vision, then?  I think it’s that vision the Doctor talks about in his conversation with Amy Pond:  peripheral vision.  This is the vision that sees what’s on the edges, what we have chosen not to focus on, the places, as the Doctor says, where we don’t want to look.  The work of the deacon, is, in words we will hear shortly, “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the 

Our call as Christians is always to proclaim God’s love and be Christ’s reconciling presence in the world.  But the reality is, as happened very early in the life of the church, we can get so focused on some parts of that work—on the preaching, and the sacraments, and the programs, and the spiritual formation, etc., etc.—that we miss what’s right on the edge of our sight, just in the corner of our eyes.  So we have deacons to bring those things back into focus.

But, as Doctor Who will show, there’s a danger to this vision.  Amy decides to go alone into that newly-discovered room, and the Doctor tells her not to look at Prisoner Zero, only to track it with her peripheral vision, “Don’t try to see it, he says. “If it knows you’ve seen it, it will kill you.”  But Amy simply won’t allow the monster to stay in the corner of her eye.  She turns and looks it directly.  (At which point it does try to kill her, but that’s beside the point.)  Later on, it is exactly that face-to-face encounter with the Prisoner, the memory of what it looks like undisguised, that allows the monster to be defeated and saves the world.

The things that deacons are called to bring to our attention—poverty, disease, abuse, neglect—are unpleasant, painful, embarrassing, troublesome.  We might even feel that to look at those things head-on will kill us.  And we might even be right.  To acknowledge a need in the world and to acknowledge that God might want us to do something about it might mean that we have to change, even to die.  But that’s exactly what the Christian life is about.  The deacon looks the need straight-on and encourages us to do the same, reminding us that this is where Christ is encountered and assuring us that even if we do face death, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—no, not even scary escaped alien convicts—will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is the kind of vision that Jesus is using in the Gospel we heard this evening.  The poor, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake don’t look particularly blessed when looked at straight on and they are those who oftentimes we’d rather not look at at all.  Not only do they tell us of what is wrong and painful about the world, but they also remind us that we could easily take their place.  Jesus calls us (and deacons remind us) to turn our heads and look at those in our peripheral vision and, with the vision that all Christians are called to exercise, see the blessing.

There’s a third scene in this episode that is particularly diaconal.  It turns out that there is yet another group of aliens, the Atraxi, who are hunting the escaped Prisoner Zero.  They put a force field around the earth, causing the sun to dim.  At this point every single person on the village green, dozens of them, does what one might expect:  they pull out their phones and begin to take pictures.  (The Doctor responds in exasperation:  “Oh, and here they come, the human race. The end comes, as it was always going to—down a video phone!”)

But the Doctor notices something odd.  Amid all of these people focused on the obvious, there is one man whose camera phone is focused on something completely different:  a man and a dog, who we already know is Prisoner Zero in disguise.  This is Rory, who has been paying attention to his own peripheral vision.  He knows something is terribly wrong but can’t get anyone to listen.  The Doctor asks Rory, “Man and dog.  Why?”  And as Rory explains, the Doctor chimes in, knowing exactly what the problem is.  Rory’s vision has been affirmed and confirmed.

This, too, I think, is a deacon’s work:  to notice other folks’ peripheral visions, to help them understand what they’re seeing, to encourage them to look at the needs of the world straight on, to listen together for God’s call, and to guide or mentor or nudge or network or whatever is appropriate to invite the church to respond.  Deacons are not the only ones who are responsible to attending to the world’s need (just as priests are not to proclaim the gospel or celebrate the sacraments alone, nor are bishops called to guard the faith, administer, or discern alone).  Their special charism is to keep the peripheral vision, as it were, in focus for the Church as a whole.

So, Ben, you’ve been baptized and confirmed.  Now it’s time for the next ontological change.  As happens with these things, you are taking a step away from the freedom of the normal Christian.  Today we set you aside and ask you to keep a special eye on our peripheral vision, to be alert for monsters and the meek, aliens and the merciful, shadows and those who hunger and thirst for anything, including righteousness.  It means that you will have to look those things hard in the face and remember what they look like so that you can point them out to the rest of us.  It’s a strangely myopic vocation, not unlike that of the prophets, who also tended to focus on the things people didn’t want to see.  It takes tenacity and grace, patience and humility, and knowing and loving your community.  You might—and probably will—blink and get it wrong sometimes:  you might see monsters where there are none, or miss injustice looming just there to the left.  This is why, unlike the prophets, you don’t do this work alone.

And you won’t begin alone.  Today you are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses—and by this local cloud of witnesses, who have already promised to uphold you in your ministry, just as you will promise to hold them accountable to theirs, showing Christ’s people “at all times . . . that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.”

And one more thing:  diagonal stoles are cool.

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Sermon on the Woman at the Well – 3-27-11

I can still remember the day I met him. I had gotten up at dawn to prepare breakfast for Adaiah and poured the last of the water into his waterskin just before he left. As the day warmed, my throat felt dryer and I longed for even the stagnant taste of the well’s water. But I didn’t dare go yet. In the early morning the well was sure to be surrounded by the women of the village, the respectable ones, the ones whose husbands were still alive, the ones with husbands who chose to stay, the ones with sons and fathers to protect them. So, I worked, waiting for the sun to rise to its highest point. Then it would be safe.

As I carried my water jar toward the well I saw a man sitting next to it. What was he doing there? There was nothing for it, I needed the water and this was the only time I could draw it. As I came nearer, it became clear to me that he wasn’t from the town. I had never seen him before. So I lowered my eyes and tried to be invisible as I lowered the water jar to the ground.

“Give me a drink.” As soon as he opened his mouth I knew he was a Jew. His very accent was enough to tighten my shoulders. How dare he? Who did he think I was? Who did he think he was? So I asked him, with all the cold politeness I could muster, how it was that he, a Jew and a man, was speaking to me, a Samaritan and a woman?

He replied, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” When he spoke he looked me straight in the eye, not brazenly, not judging me, just looking at me.

I was confused. He was clearly a traveler, but he had no bag, no donkey, much less a bucket. The only water within reach was the old well; there was no stream or fountain where he could get fresh flowing water. Again, the anger began to rise. Who did he think he was? This Jew dares to ask me for water, then boasts that he has better water! My father had always said the Jews were arrogant, that the further they got from the true worship that we Samaritans had maintained, the more arrogant they got.

So I said to him, trying to contain the irritation in my voice: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our common father Jacob, who gave us this well?”

He paused before he responded. He kept looking at me. I couldn’t remember the last time when someone had looked at me that way. I felt naked, but not ashamed; safe but not quite comfortable. He didn’t take the insult, but simply smiled and said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

My parched throat made me speak before I could even think: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty,” then remembering the shame that brought me here at this hour, I continued, “or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

The man smiled again. “Go, call your husband and come back.” My heart fell. He was like all the rest after all. As soon as he heard, his eyes would be veiled again, his face would close up like a wall, his gaze would be somewhere over my shoulder. It didn’t matter that my first husband, Ezra, had been trampled by our neighbor’s ox, that the second, Hanan, had died of a wasting disease, that Bilgai had divorced me because I had burned his supper once too often. My fourth husband, Zadok, had run off to join the insurrection against the Romans, and the last divorced me because I had not borne him any children. Adaiah stayed with me when he was in town selling his goods. I knew he had a wife and children in some other town, but he would always leave me a little extra money for food when he left, and some company, some protection on some nights was better than none.

If I ever had to leave my house when others were on the streets, like on market day, the stares and whispers and outright insults followed me until I closed my door behind me again.

But none of that mattered. I looked back at the stranger defiantly and said, “I have no husband.” He didn’t need to know more than that.

The stranger nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “You have had five husbands and the man with you now is not your husband. This is true.”

How could he have known? Even more, how was it that he did not judge me? His eyes still looked at me, open and embracing. My heart leapt. The water was forgotten.

This had to be a man of God! How else would he know these things about me? But he was a Jew, of a people who had abandoned the worship our forefathers had been faithful to on Mount Gerizim!

So I asked him. It was a strange question, but it seemed most urgent at the time. I had to understand who this man was. If he were a true prophet, maybe he could help me to win back God’s favor. God had abandoned me long ago, I was convinced, and I wanted to be able to approach Him once again.

“Woman,” he said firmly, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . the hour is coming when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.”

I could hardly believe my ears: “you will worship the Father neither here nor there.” A day was coming when I would worship God unbound by the disgrace I suffered, beyond the hatred that had existed between this Jew’s people and my people for so long. Worship would be not just the right rituals in the right place, but in spirit, not in fear and hiding, but openly and in truth. What was more, the Father was seeking people to worship him, God was seeking me!

I don’t know how much time passed, but before I knew it I was seated at his feet, listening to him and being listened to by him. “I know that Messiah is coming,” I told him, trying to find that common ground between our people, trying to show him that despite being a woman I knew something of our faith. “When he comes, everything will become clear.” The stranger said, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And I knew that he was telling the truth.

We had both been so engrossed in our conversation that we didn’t even notice when a group of men—evidently his friends—returned from town with food. When we looked up we saw them standing not too far off. There in their eyes was the look that had never appeared in his. They already had decided who I was and judged me unworthy. The shock of it shook me back to reality.

But reality had changed. This man knew me better than anyone, yet he loved me—yes, loved, but not in any way I’d experienced before. He wanted nothing from me but the truth and offered the same in return.

I jumped up, leaving my water jar behind, and ran into town. Right to the main gate of town I ran, where the men gathered to conduct their business, where disputes were mediated, where gossip—rather, news—was shared.

I ran right into the midst of them, ignoring the indignant stares, the pointing fingers. “You must come,” I panted. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” I know it made no sense to them. What had my shameful reputation to do with the Messiah? But my shocking declaration, my seeming lack of shame at being seen in public, and my insistence that they come with me made them follow me back to the well.

When we came back to the stranger and he began to speak to them, I could hear their murmurs when they heard his accent. But before long they too sat down to hear what he had to say. Word spread quickly to the women, who soon crept out of their homes and listened on the edges of the crowd.

He stayed two days, teaching us about the true worship of God and God’s love for us. Even those who’d been skeptical because of my involvement came around to believing him. Just before the stranger left—we found out that his name was Jesus—one of the men of the town turned to me and said, “It is no longer because of what you said that I believe him. I’ve heard him now myself and I know that he is the Savior of the world.” A backhanded complement perhaps, but it was the first time in years that anyone in the town, much less a man, had spoken to me with respect.

I still go to the well every day, but I no longer go at noon. My shame is gone. I can walk with the other women, my head held high. For I have met the Messiah, and he told me everything I had ever done.

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Sermon on the Song of Solomon, preached 7-3-11

Proper 9A – 7-3-11
St. Gregory’s, Deerfield

How many of you have been in love?  (Don’t raise your hands.  That might be too much information.  Just think about it.)  For those of you who have been in love, I want you to try to remember those first, heady days when time either flew or stood still, when your heart and your mind and your body together yearned just to be with your beloved.  The butterflies in your stomach as you approached the place where your beloved was, or awaited your beloved’s visit.  If being in love isn’t a good memory for you, then remember the longing for a beloved friend or relative, the comfort of his or her presence.  Think of how that felt in your body, the sense of longing in absence and of delight in reuniting, the ways that it changed over time.

This is what the book the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs) tries to describe.  How many of you have heard this read in church before – except for maybe a wedding?  How many of you have read this lovely little bit of erotic poetry from the Hebrew Scriptures? It is attributed to King Solomon, but probably written later.  I invite you to go home and read the whole thing.  It’s only about 120 verses long.  Even as love poetry, it might be confusing, since it doesn’t conform to what we have been led to believe is “proper” biblical courtship or eroticism ought to be.  It’s pretty racy, and even the marital status of the couple is not terribly unclear.  Shocking!

There are some things that still make me giggle, given the different cultural contexts, like

Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins, (4:1b-2)

I’m not sure I’d want my hair to be compared to goats, nor my teeth to sheep.

Then there is the passage for today.  Here the woman describes hearing the voice of her beloved, knowing that he is coming, no, racing toward her.  He stands outside the walls of the house, trying to get in, trying to catch a glimpse of her.  He speaks again:  Arise, my love, my fair one, he says, and come away.  Come outside of the house, he says, and revel in the coming of spring.

In addition to the plain meaning of the text as simple love poetry, there is a long tradition of reading this book as an allegory for the relationship of God with the people of Israel, and later for the relationship of Christ and the Church.  What if we take this tradition seriously and allow this to be an image of God and God’s love for us?  What would it be like to understand God as a lover seeking God’s beloved?

When this sort of imagery is used, that of longing and desire, I have usually heard it used to talk of our longing for God, of our need for God, of the ways that we cannot rest until we rest in God.  All true concepts, all good ideas, well worth meditating on.

But what if we turn that around and take the vignette from today’s text at face value?  What if it’s God who is longing for us?  What if it is God who is racing to find us, running over hills and peeking through the window, calling to each of us, Arise, my love, and come away”?

Take those memories I invited you to recall, those of loving and being loved, that sense of urgency and longing, and imagine yourself as God’s beloved, being pursued by God, like the lover in today’s reading, recognizing the love in the eyes of your beloved.  Imagine it in thought, and emotion, and body.  What do you feel?

This might be a wonderful experience, a reminder of the love that we proclaim each Sunday and in our life together as Church.  But it might be an uncomfortable experience, or a terrifying experience, something you might not want even to think about.  There might be lots of God baggage (or love baggage) and the idea of God seeking you out this way is downright creepy.  You might doubt that this could be true for you, or it used to seem true and now seems far away or abstract.  It might make you feel hopeful or uncomfortable, that maybe God could long for you in such a passionate way.  Or none of the above, or some mix of all of the above.  However your respond, whatever this evokes for you, is fine.

But this is the power of the metaphor.   Even our own mixed responses reflect that we are dealing with something beyond our ability to reckon or grasp, something that we can approach only in metaphors and piece together from thoughts, and feelings, and sensations, colored by our histories and cultures, and limited by our language.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a presentation several years ago, called “The Body’s Grace.”  It is a wonderful and wise exploration of where spirituality and sexuality meet, and well worth reading.  In it, he says this:

Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. . . .

The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy. []

We say all the time that God loves us.  It’s true, but it’s a phrase worn down with use and misuse and abuse.  What does it mean to say the God desires us, in all of the levels that this means, to say that God delights in us, that we give God joy just by our very existence?  Parents and lovers, I think, come closest to understanding best what we try to say about God’s delight, that delight and joy in the mere existence of the one we love.

Williams goes on to say something even more challenging, I think, implying that this understanding of God’s love, delight, and desire for us is not only nice, but necessary:

I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy. . . .

To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identity of God’s child. [Ibid.]

It is in being loved – by God first and foremost, but also by family, by friends, by a beloved, by the community of faith – that we learn who we are and how to love.  It is by understanding ourselves as desired by God that we can offer that delight back to those around us.  And it is at this point that we can offer back to God what every lover most longs for:  the desire of the beloved.

There was a Muslim poet, a Sufi mystic, in the 13th century called Rumi. He got it, this mystical connection between romantic, erotic love and the encounter with God.  He wrote thousands of poems, pushing boundaries, blurring lines we tend to draw between the sacred and profane, exalting everyday encounters to the status of mystical epiphany.  In this poem, he echoes the Song of Songs:

Some Kiss We Want
There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body. Seawater
begs the pearl to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling! At
night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine. Breathe into
me. Close the language-door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window.

From Soul of Rumi, by Coleman Barks []

This same idea of peeking in through the window, the sense of longing to be in such intimate contact with that which fills us with our own breath.  We do, indeed proclaim a God who, like the lover in the Song of Songs, or Rumi’s moon, presses up against the window, longing for an encounter with us.  So how do we respond?

Sit back, and breathe.  Experience God’s presence as intimate as your breath entering your body.  Listen for the ways in which God is not only in your mind and heart, but also in your body.  Those places that have the spark of life for you that give you energy and joy and delight in what is around you.  Listen – with your ears, and your eyes and your heart and your gut and your mind.  Watch for glimmers of God in our sacramental life.  One the things that saves us in the Anglican tradition from living entirely in your heads—because we do that, we love our words—is that we have this rich sacramental life that reminds us that we are embodied.    Particularly in the Eucharist, we find places where we are invited to bring our whole bodies to see and hear and taste and smell and touch.  Look, too, through the windows of your neighbor, particularly the ones least likely, because Jesus has taught us that it is there that we also find the Beloved.

Above all, listen, listen:  the Voice is calling, and will always call, for you:  “Arise, my love, my fair one.”  Arise.

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Bishop Lee’s Pilgrimage to Palestine of Jesus

Bishop Lee is planning a spiritual pilgrimage to explore the Palestine of Jesus from July 26 through August 8. The pilgrimage will start at the Walled City and travel to important landmarks, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Dead Sea. Young people are encouraged to apply. For more information regarding costs, itinerary and travel, please contact Elizabeth Nelson at or 312-751-4215.

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