A fun note: I named another sermon "Love Songs," and not so long ago, either! (February). Didn't realize it until the bulletin was printed. Would have done it anyway.
November 25, 2007: Feast of the Reign of Christ
I bet each and every one of you has the words to at least one love song permanently imprinted on your heart. Who would like to share the words to a favorite love song with all of us? Here’s one of my favorites, a Cole Porter classic:
You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss.
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile
On the Mona Lisa.
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, Baby, I'm the bottom
You're the top!
I love the language of love songs! I love how we instinctively understand them, even when the words are all hyperbole and exaggeration. When hear that song, we don’t imagine that the singer has literally fallen in love with a building or a museum or a cartoon character. We understand that the object of her desire fills her with emotions on a grand scale, feelings that seem bigger than life. Some love songs use language that is much more direct and non-metaphorical. My daughter and I have been listening to a lot of Beatles’ lately, and I was thinking of this one:
Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
I don’t want to leave her now
I know I believe her now…
That song, by the under-appreciated George Harrison, could hardly be more different than the Cole Porter lyric. Still, like the other one, it describes a surplus of feeling, a sensation so big it takes the singer out of himself. What all love songs have in common is this: they speak the language of the heart. They describe feelings that overflow, that are too big for mere words. They also describe experiences that, even though they may be specific, are also somehow universal. Most everyone who hears a great love song “gets it.”
I want to suggest we look at today’s passage from Colossians as a love song. Of course, when we look at any passage from scripture, we can approach in any number of ways. To name just a few…
We could think about scripture as a guidebook for living, looking to it to give us sound advice on ways to deepen our faith, live a more fulfilling life.
We could think about scripture as a piece of law, looking for the great, overarching legal and moral structures.
We could think about scripture as history, looking for information about the particular situation of the world in which it was written.
We could think about scripture as if we were editors, searching for “layers” in the text… linguistic clues as to this or that editorial hand at work.
We could think about scripture as theologians, asking, “What does this text tell us about the nature of God?”
We could think about scripture as anthropologists, asking, “What does this text tell us about the nature of human beings?”
Scripture contains dozens of different genres—histories, letters, genealogies, poetry, liturgical formulas, laws, narrative biographies; one of my seminary professors even described one little book as a novella. And there are probably at least a dozen ways we could approach our passage today. But today, when I read this passage: I hear a love song. They way I hear it, we are listening in on a love song from a particular community, the church at Colossae, to Jesus Christ. Listen to these words again, and see if you can recognize the surplus of feeling, the overwhelming nature of the relationship that is being evoked:
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
[whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—]
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, [the church];
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
[so that he might come to have first place in everything].
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
[by making peace through the blood of his cross].
Scripture scholars believe that what I’ve just read is a fragment of an early Christian hymn… a hymn that was sung by the very first generations of those who followed Jesus. The writer of the letter is quoting this hymn back to the Colossians, as he greets them and prays for their strength and faith. This hymn is filled with beautiful and important reflections on the nature of Jesus, who he was and is, what he meant to that early community and what he means to us today. We could definitely approach this scripture as theologians! But for today, I’d like us to focus more on the relationship than the theology.
Love songs tell us about relationships. When the first Christians lifted their voices to sing these words, I believe they were attempting to describe a relationship that was life changing, world-altering: the encounter with Jesus Christ. Like Paul, like us, these folks never met Jesus during his earthly ministry. Like Paul, like us, they instead had an encounter with him through story and song, through the preaching of the good news. Like Paul, like us, they met the risen Christ through his body, the church.
Last month I heard Marcus Borg speak at Wonderfully Liberal Local Church. For those of you not familiar with Professor Borg, he is the author of such books as “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” and in some circles, his liberal reputation is a liability. But when I read that particular book, I was stunned to find that, at the heart of his theology is the conviction that, we need to encounter Jesus Christ. The Christian life is about entering into relationship with the One towards whom all our stories and hymns and love songs point: the living, eternal God, the risen Christ, the Holy and astounding Spirit. When we hear the words of the epistle, they are a reminder of one community’s extraordinary experience of the risen Christ. When we hear these words, they are an invitation to us to enter into that same relationship.
This morning we have been privileged to be witness to two baptisms even as we all strive to remember our own. Now, I was a month old when I was baptized, so, in that sense of course I can’t remember it, and maybe you can’t either. When we are called to remember our baptism, as we were called to today alongside C, D, G and M, we are asked to remember the relationship into which we have been called. If we look at our passage, we see all sorts of ways of understanding that relationship:
The relationship with Jesus is like the relationship with an older brother, the firstborn who loves us and protects us and goes through everything before we’ve gone through it.
It’s like the relationship with the One whose signature is on all of creation, whose fingers traced the outlines of the mountains and placed each point of light in the sky.
It’s like the relationship with our own body… our need for Jesus Christ is as vivid and dramatic as the body’s need for the head.
It’s like the relationship we have with the beginning of all things: without it there would be nothing.
It’s like the relationship we have with the ones who loved us first, before we even thought of returning the gesture.
There’s something in the way he moves… he is the top, and the Christian community has composed many a great and soaring melody to testify to that love.
Today, while our new member families were greeting the congregation, the choir sang an anthem that is the other side of this love song: the love of the risen Christ for us. This song was composed as a love song from God to us. I invite you to hear the words again, and to recognize in them the claim of this love on your heart and mine.
I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see life unfold.
I was there when you were but a child with a faith to suit you well;
in a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.
When you heard the wonder of the Word. I was there to cheer you on.
You were raised to praise the living Lord to whom you now belong.
If you find someone to share your time and you join your hearts as one,
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.
In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young,
I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.
When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.
I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old,
I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.
Thanks be to God. Amen.