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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Sermon preached February 7, 2010 at St. Gregory’s, Deerfield

A sermon on Isaiah’s call, Epiphany 5C, February 7, 2010:

Today, we hear Isaiah’s call.  It begins with a magnificent vision of God’s throne, with a robe so immense it fills the temple.  The seraphim aren’t cute cherubs or lovely angels, seraph referred to a fiery serpent.  These basically are six-winged dragons flying around God’s throne.  It is overwhelming and Isaiah reacts with fear and a sense of unworthiness.

But the song of the seraphim is so familiar that it’s easy to lose the holy terror of the scene.  (It’s probably not helpful to suggest that you imagine the seraphim as we sing the Sanctus today?)

Isaiah responds with another oft-used line:  “here I am, send me!”  It’s often used at ordinations, along with the lovely song, Here I Am, Lord.  And at this point, the lectionary gives us the option to end the reading.

Ah, but there’s more, as they say.  Only after Isaiah has volunteered for this vague mission (“Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”), he gets the details.  He is to go and tell the people of Israel to listen but not to hear, to look but not to see, somehow intentionally to dull their minds for as long as it takes for their cities to be laid waste and the people either dead or in exile.  How can God say, “Make the mind of this people dull, . . . so that they may not . . . turn and be healed”?

Fun.  What are we to make of this disturbing mission?  Isaiah is like the ancient Greek figure of Cassandra, who is given prophetic powers but when she refuses the god Apollo’s love, she is cursed so that no one will believe her.  Is the God of Israel as fickle as the Greek gods?  Is the story of Israel to be as fatalistic and impotent as that of the mortals in Greek mythology?

[I plowed through an article that wrestled with this question, pulling in all sorts of theories of interpretation, including the sociologist Emile Durkheim.  It’s too early in the morning for that, and I think there may be another way to get at this ]

Both the biblical and the ancient Greek prophets are known for telling the future, but white for the Greeks the future is unchangeable no matter what we do, the goal of Biblical prophecy is not simply to predict.  In fact that is perhaps the least important part of the prophets’ message.  The future is presented to the people not as some magic trick or a way to make money on the lottery, but rather as a way calling the people’s attention to the present.  The future is a consequence of the roots laid down in the present, in the actions, attitudes and beliefs of the people right now.  If the people practice injustice, the prophets say, then society will not hold together, those who have power will overstretch themselves and be vulnerable to the powerful of those outside of the nation.  Conversely, if the people hold to their covenant with God and do not follow other gods, if they remember the ethical component of their covenant, then their sense of identity will be maintained, even in exile, and God will be with them.  This means that we have a choice—the future can be changed if we change the present.

I am of the opinion that today one of the closest people we have to prophets are mothers.  They, too, have an ability to tell the future, in a way often most mysterious to their children:  “if you keep rough-housing like that, someone will get hurt”—and bam! It happens! They can see beyond simply human abilities:  “get your hand out of that cookie jar” and she’s not even in the room!

Mothers’ prophecies, like those of the biblical prophets, are based in the present, rooted in watching the patterns and the natural and logical consequences of the choices their children make.

Mothers’ prophecies can also, like those of the biblical prophets, fall on deaf ears.  How many parents have found themselves yelling at their children over and over, repeating yourselves a thousand times, and it’s as if you’re – choose one:  talking to yourself, talking to a brick wall, in a time loop?  How many of you children (both young and grown) have heard that vague parental rumbling in the background, nodded your heads, yet have no memory of what’s been said?

Picture those situations and listen again to the words of Isaiah:

Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds

God is highlighting the same dynamic.  When we get used to ignoring God, when we think we’re fine the way we are (playing in our own little worlds, enjoying our own stacks of cookies, provoking our siblings), when we’d rather not get up and do our God-ordained chores (of feeding the poor, caring for the stranger, visiting the prisoner, tending to the sick) – when we do those things for long enough, we stop hearing.  We nod and say, “yes, Mom,” but the meaning fades into the background.

At least until Mom – or God – gets tired of all this.  At this point we have two ways to look at reality and the rest of the reading from Isaiah: the consequence of not paying attention is, by one account, God’s punishment, which means we (and Israel in Isaiah’s day) can attribute our future suffering to God’s wrath, an option I’m not entirely comfortable with (particularly in light of how that gets used against others, e.g. Pat Robertson’s comments about Haiti).  On the other hand, it could be that the cities lying waste, houses without people, the nation in exile, all these things could be a consequence of not being attentive in the first place.  Mom says, over and over, brush your teeth.  If you don’t, the cavities are not Mom’s punishment but a natural consequence.

“Real life” in the big bad grownup world is rarely as simple as not brushing teeth = cavities, but I believe that God’s message through Isaiah points to an important truth.  I couldn’t help but see our current economic situation in the references to houses without people, and to wars and natural disasters in the cities lying waste, and in the realities of environmental destruction in the desolation of the land.

Have we stopped listening to God?  In our comfort, do we sit and play with our own toys, deaf to the cries of the poor next door and around the world?  In our fear, do we plug our ears and sing “la la la,” so that we don’t have to deal with the consequences of our choices to live beyond our means, both individually and collectively.  In our twisted sense of self, do we stare so hard into the bathroom mirror that we can’t hear the truth about either our sin or our loveliness?  In our habit of not listening to God we grow calluses on our eyes, our ears and our hearts.

These are hard questions, perhaps more fitting to the season of Lent, although one of the themes of Epiphany is God’s revelation of truth, particularly in Jesus.  I don’t want to move too quickly from these questions, as uncomfortable as they may be.  I encourage you to take time in prayer, in solitary reflection, and in communal discernment, to be attentive to the ways that we have stopped listening to God (and not in the easy-out ways . . .

But I want to add a final note of encouragement.  Despite Isaiah’s backhanded sign of hope (“the holy seed is its stump”), we do have always, always, always, the redeeming love of God in Christ.  Doing the hard and scary work of recognizing the ways we have covered our eyes, blocked our ears, and dulled our understanding is not so that God can say “I told you so” or punish us.  It is so that we can participate in that abundant life that God longs to share with us.  In today’s gospel, Peter could very well have covered his ears when Jesus asks him to let down the nets again.  Like some request from Mom to take out the garbage yet again (I took it out last week!), it may have seemed unreasonable.  Yet he was able to hear Jesus’ voice, and in responding he got – more work, yes, more suffering, yes, a harder road, yes – but it was all in the context of a sense of God’s abundant love.  And that love is always worth listening for.

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Sermon preached at St. Gregory’s, Deerfield, April 13, 2008

I’m behind on posting lots of things.  Here’s a sermon about sheep (Easter 4A, 2008):

Today’s gospel gives us two of three parable Jesus tells in the gospel of John about sheep, the third one being Jesus’ famous words about being the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep..  It is likely that Jesus didn’t tell the stories right in a row like this.  He probably told them on separate occasions and John put them together because of their common theme (kind of like telling stories about great uncle Billy:  “oh and that reminds me of the time when he said this . . . “)

As Jesus told these parables, his listeners would probably have pictured a communal sheep pen in the village to which various flocks would be herded at night.  The shepherds would take turns being gatekeeper (perhaps using their own bodies as the gate while they slept across the opening) and then each shepherd would come and call out his own sheep (through the gate) with a call that the sheep had learned to recognize from him.

In these three parables about sheep, shepherds and pens, Jesus focuses on different parts of the image.  In the first parable, Jesus doesn’t identify himself with any particular part, but rather notes that true shepherds enter by the gate and don’t climb over the wall, while others–thieves and bandits–climb over the wall.  The sheep, he notes, recognize the shepherd’s voice and follow him.  He doesn’t at this point identify himself with the shepherd–he does quite explicitly a bit later–so he seems to be making a point about people other than himself.

The second parable identifies Jesus with the gate to the sheepfold.  If true shepherds enter only by the gate, then their entrance, he says, is through him.  In the first parable, he says that the sheep will not follow a stranger (i.e. the thieves and bandits who have climbed over the wall), but he does say in the second that the thief comes in “only to steal and kill and destroy.”

Some biblical scholars tell us that John is using these parables by Jesus to encourage the church in a very difficult time, a time when different teachings have arisen, a time when the church has been challenged and maligned by the Jewish communities of which they’d originally been a part, a time when things seem quite precarious and dangerous.

Today’s reading is preceding by the amazing story of Jesus healing the man born blind.  In it, the Pharisees are shown to be blind to Jesus’ true identity and blind to the very signs that he is working.  It ends with the lines,

“Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.”

The whole set of sheep and shepherd parables closes with parallel words:

Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’

A bible interpretation tip here:  if a passage has very similar phrases surrounding it–as in this one where we find two parallel references to blindness–one should consider that they are meant to highlight something.

I think John is trying to get us to understand something about us as a community and about the leadership of our communities.  The Pharisees–that is, the authorities–are blind, John tells us, so listen carefully to find out how we should see.

One of the overriding questions for these parables is “how do we know that our leaders and teachers come from God?”  “How do we see them?”  You’ll recognize them, Jesus says, because they will come into the community by the proper way:  through the gate.  They won’t sneak in, they won’t take shortcuts and they know their sheep.

Leadership in the Christian community takes various forms–or at least it should.  There is the obvious leadership of the bishop, as chief pastor, administrator, and bearer of the tradition.  There is that of the priests, essentially deputized by the bishop to teach, preach, offer pastoral care and administer the sacraments.  Those are pretty obvious.  But then there is the leadership of the deacon, who reminds the community and each of its members of their duty to serve the least and most easily forgotten around them.  There is the leadership of those whose lives seamlessly integrate Christ’s love and reconciliation wherever they are–at home, at work, even at church.  There are those whose wisdom helps the community stay on course when fear or confusion or wounds threaten to lead them astray.  There are those whose leadership is in the formation and education of all of the members of the community.  Christian leadership is meant–as we are reminded by Paul’s powerful metaphor of the church as a living body–to be diverse and varied, lay and ordained.

So how do we recognize that leadership as being that which Jesus would have for us?  First, those leaders don’t sneak in.  They don’t manipulate their way to prominence, nor do they hide their light under a bushel basket.  They are true to who they are and who God has called them to be, no more and no less.  Second, they don’t take shortcuts.  This is a hard one.  The work of love and reconciliation is hard, yet it cannot be sidestepped.  True leaders in our community are willing to stay in hard conversations, to hear all of the stories, to allow God to do God’s work in God’s time.  The shortcuts of manipulation and deception (or at least dissimulation), taking advantage of lack of communication, of using fear or other forms of pressure–none of these things are the ways that true shepherds enter a community.

Those first two characteristics find completion in the third:  the true shepherds know their sheep.  Shepherds who tend to use their sheep for wool rather than meat will spend years with their sheep.  The sheep learn to know their shepherd’s voices and the shepherd knows theirs.  Sneaking in will not lead to better knowledge, nor will taking shortcuts.  That comes only with time and entering into the relationships directly and honestly.  (You’ll note that the issue in the story of the healing of the blind man, that the Pharisees don’t know him or recognize him.)

The second parable that Jesus tells gives another key to leadership in our communities of faith.  Jesus is the gate, so the true leaders will enter through him.  But what does this mean?  Those who enter by the gate of Jesus will be like him (tall order, but what we’re all called to follow):  they will seek out and love those who are usually on the margins, they will offer words of encouragement to the struggling and words of challenge to the comfortable, they will serve rather than look to be the boss, they will relate to God with the trust of a child to a parent, they will offer healing and nourishment in surprising and abundant ways, they will seek God’s glory rather than their own.  Now, none of us is Jesus, and we will never fully  live up to those things.  We will see, however, glimpses of that gate in our various shepherds and a desire in them to be more and more like him.

So that’s all very nice and orderly.  I don’t usually write sermons with three point lists:  the three qualities of a godly life, five steps to forgiveness.  But here you are, the three qualities of Christian leadership, or conversely, how not to be a thief and a bandit:  don’t sneak in, don’t take shortcuts, make sure you know the sheep.

But there’s a wrinkle to all of this.  In what we’ve heard, we have a nice, safe sheepfold, walled all around, the one opening guarded by Jesus, kindly shepherds who call our names.  but there’s a catch.  All of this is to prepare the sheep to leave.

If the sheep were to spend all of their time in the pen, there would essentially be no need for shepherds.  The pens are to keep the sheep safe so that they can do something more important:  leave.

Leaving is tricky.  On the one had, the food and water are outside the sheepfold; on the other, most of the dangers are, too.  But this is what shepherds do, they lead their sheep out into a big world full of lovely green grass and sharp-toothed wolves, full of clear running streams and steep cliffs.

As Christians, most of us will not spend our lives inside the sheepfold, if we understand it to be the church.  Nor should we.  We are made to go out into the wide, wild world and face both its joys and its dangers.  The difference is that we have a good Shepherd who leads us, knows us and is willing to give all for us.

All the more reason to pay attention to who your shepherds are and to pay attention to what happens inside the fold.  Jesus implies at first that the sheep will not follow these thieves and bandits because the sheep don’t know their voices.  There is a danger, however.  The thieves enter, he says, to “steal and kill and destroy.”  They do damage inside the sheepfold so that the sheep cannot leave, the sheep cannot go out to find nourishment.

Another mark, then, of a thief and a bandit infiltrating the Christian community is that somehow the members of the community are not permitted or encouraged to leave the fold.  Strange, isn’t it?  But Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. . . . I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Staying in the sheepfold won’t do it.

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FTE Fellowships

Applications for FTE’s 2011-2012 academic year fellowships are available now on the FTE website. Fellowships are available for the following groups of students interested in ministry:

  • undergraduate students
  • entering seminary students
  • first year seminary students (who will be second year students in 2011-2012)
  • racially and ethnically underrepresented doctoral students.

If you meet these criteria, check out the FTE website for more information or for the applications.

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