Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Gift of Love: Sermon on Song of Songs 2:8-13

For a rundown of today's church experience, find me here.


It is hard to resist a love song. I’m going to do something I’ve done before: share some of my favorites with you. This is a song I first heard when I was not even ten years old. It was the summer of 1970, and my favorite cousin was a teenager, utterly besotted with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young:

I’ll light the fire.

You place the flowers in the vase that you bought today.

Staring at the fire

for hours and hours while I listen to you

play your love songs all night long

for me, only for me

This summer I’ve been listening to another love song, one I learned from my current favorite teenager. It’s called “Our Song.”

Our song is the slamming screen doors,
Sneakin' out late, tapping on your window
When we're on the phone and you talk real slow
'cause it's late and your mama don't know
Our song is the way you laugh
The first date "man, I didn't kiss her, and I should have"
And when I got home ... before I said amen
Asking God if he could play it again.

It is hard to resist a love song. And so here we are, reading love songs in church on a Sunday morning. It doesn’t seem likely, yet here it is: right smack in the middle of the Hebrew Scriptures, tucked in between the rather dour philosophy of Ecclesiastes on the one hand, and the magnificent, epic prophesy of Isaiah on the other. A love song… actually, a collection of love songs… actually, the most excellent of love songs, the Song of Songs, as it’s called. And, if I may just say, much of this particular book is rather scorching, truly PG-13 scripture. The passage I’ve just read is one of the tamer portions. The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is an unabashedly joyous celebration of sensuous, romantic love.

The lectionary dares to offer us a glimpse into this book just once every three years. Maybe there’s some anxiety about such a frank text making its way into our worship any more frequently than that. The Song of Songs has been inspiring controversy for at least two thousand years. Just after the time of Jesus, late in the first century CE, there was evidently a fight among the rabbis as to whether it should be included in the Bible at all. The detractors had a number of concerns. First, there is not a single mention of God in the entire book, rare for books in the Bible, though not unheard of . Second, the subject matter of the book is such that, even as it was being used in worship (on the Sabbath and at the end of Passover), it had also found, shall we say, a more rowdy, secular audience. And third, the Song of Songs contains what one scholar has called “the only unmediated female voice in all of Scripture.” Throughout much of this book, a woman speaks, and she does so in a way that is forthright, and sensuous and assertive. This was, to say the least, a departure from accepted tradition.

And yet, the detractors did not win the day. The Song of Songs has found a home in the Scripture of both Jews and Christians. So we must believe that the rabbis found, in the end, something edifying here, something uplifting. This book has something to teach us about the life of faith. This book, for Jews and Christians, is a part of God’s word, contains God’s word to us. And it is a book made up of love songs.

There is a deep and wide tradition of interpreting the Song of Songs as being, not about human, romantic love at all, but, rather, being about the love between God and people—Yahweh and Israel, or Christ and the Church. And… we’ll get to that. But I don’t want to rush away from what is right there in front of us. This is a book that celebrates human, romantic, physical love. In detail. It is about longing, and passion. Hear the breathless anticipation of the woman as she waits for her love:

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. ~ Song 2:8-9

We can hear it in the lyrics: her heart is racing, she can barely stand the waiting. She is listening with rapt attention for the voice of her beloved… we feel that when she hears it, she will be in ecstasy. And then, finally, she does hear it. And here is what he says:

“Arise, my love, my fair one,

and come away;

for now the winter is past,

the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth;

the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

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. ~ Song 2:10b-13

The voice of her beloved entices her to rise and come away: he woos her with images of spring… the time of birth, of blossoming, of newness and beauty. He appeals to her senses, inviting her to enjoy all that is delicious and fragrant, the veritable season of love. Like my favorite love song from the 70’s there is a sense that the lovers anticipate a deep connection as they focus solely on one another: “…I listen to you play your love songs all night long for me, only for me.” Our passage is like a little duet: first the woman sings, and then the man. She calls and he responds. It is so clearly a song of love, intimate, human, passionate. So… once again, what is it doing in our bibles?

As we heard in our reading from James, “every perfect gift is from above,” and that includes the gift of love. And so, contained in this duet, implicit in it, is an affirmation of God’s blessing upon the couple. The presence of these lyrics as part of our sacred story indicates to us, in no uncertain terms, that God smiles on love… it is a good and beautiful part of God’s creation. And do you have any doubts as to what the woman replies to this invitation? Of course not… Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. We know it in our bones, without even reading the rest of the story… she rises, she goes. There is no other possible ending.

Even God loves a love song. But even more fundamentally than that, God loves us… in all our humanity, in all our physicality. There is no sign in this book that God harbors any negative feelings about human beings, including our bodies. On the contrary: God, who created us, continues to call this creation “good.”

Still, there is more to this text than the straightforward reading of it. Gorgeous, sensuous love lyric though it may be, throughout Jewish and Christian history, people of faith have found other treasures in the Song of Songs. After all, haven’t the stores of God and God’s people always commenced with the kind of invitation we find in love song?

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” ~ Genesis 12:1

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” ~ Mark 1:16-17

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Time and again, God calls us, and we hear God’s call. It seems only natural that people of faith throughout the centuries have read these words and recognized in them the intimacy and the power of God’s claim on us, God’s beloved people. Arise, my love, and come away. God says it to us, again and again.

If this small passage has anything to teach us about our relationship with God, about our life in faith, perhaps it is in the breathless anticipation of the woman as she awaits her beloved. I wonder… how can we prepare ourselves so that we are just as eager, just as breathless to hear God’s invitation to us? How can we learn to be like Abram, who drops everything at the age of 75 to go, he knows not where? How can we learn to be like the disciples, who leave their boats and their nets and their lives to follow Jesus to do they know not what? How can we learn to be like this woman who waits with longing for her beloved’s invitation to rise, to come away, to the mystery that will be their life together? Maybe we can find a clue to this willingness, this readiness, by observing the woman as she waits. She gazes upon her beloved, with rapt attention. “Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.” She sees his attributes, she admires his beauty, his abilities. Will we be more ready to rise and go with God, to dare to follow where we are led, if we spend more time in gazing upon God, with rapt attention… God’s goodness, God’s beauty, God’s amazing acts?

Every perfect gift is from above. Everything that is good and worthwhile comes from God’s hand. Everything that stirs our hearts with joy… God gave to us. Everything that makes us breathless with anticipation… God is behind it. God, who calls us “beloved.” God, who wants nothing more than to know we are ready, willing, eager to come when we are called. God, who loves us so much that even the barriers between being God and being human could not keep that love at bay.

It is hard to resist a love song. So don’t resist. Listen. Hear this love song, right now, as God’s breathless words of love to you.

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

for now the winter is past,

the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth;

the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

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.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Graham Nash, “Our House,” from Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, March 11, 1970.

ii] Taylor Swift, “Our Song,” from Fearless, November 11, 2008.

[iii] God is, similarly, not mentioned in the Book of Esther.

[iv] Renita J. Weems, “The Song of Songs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. V (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 364.

[v] Thanks to Rev. David Shearman for inspiring the idea of the “duet.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Holy Wisdom: A Sermon on Proverbs 9:1-6

For years I have had a kind of fantasy of the perfect party, somewhat inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I’ve envisioned a nighttime summer gathering of friends, complete with twinkling fairy lights and a perfect light summer feast… something grilled, with wonderful fruits and vegetables in season, and light, crisp wine. The conversation would be as earnest as the clothing was diaphanous, and the evening would end with a drive into the hills and away from the city lights, to view a well-timed meteor shower.

What is it about parties? What is it about gatherings around the table? The lectionary just can’t let go of this theme this summer. For our gospel readings, we are in our fifth straight week on the feeding of the multitudes and the meaning of that feast, and today we add a feast from Proverbs to drive home the point. Actually, the lectionary offers us two options from the Hebrew Scriptures today. We could have read a passage from 1 Kings, recounting the transition of power from King David to his son Solomon. Or, as an alternative, we have this brief gem from Proverbs, one of three books in the bible traditionally ascribed to the hand of Solomon. So, we could look at it this way: rather than reading about a man who sought wisdom, and prayed for it, and was known for it, we have an opportunity to go right to the source, to Wisdom itself, or herself. In this morning’s passage a woman called Wisdom is involved in all sorts of tasks, some expected, some surprising, all of which lead us to wonder: What is wisdom? Or, perhaps, Who is wisdom?

Wisdom, whoever or whatever she is, is one busy lady. She is getting ready for a party. Plans for my “someday” summer feast pale in comparison to her industry. The opening verses about her work clue us into the fact that she is no ordinary woman: Wisdom builds her house, she hews her seven pillars, and she slaughters animals. Wisdom is engaging in activities that are rarely, anywhere in scripture, performed by a woman. In the ancient Near East, there are firm divisions of labor into things women do and things men do. Women do not build houses or hew pillars, because those are things men do. Women, who are associated with birth and life, are not supposed to end life, even by slaughtering animals for food. Which leads us to believe, perhaps, we are dealing with something altogether different, a different kind of building, a different kind of woman. Chapter 8 tells us a little more about Wisdom, giving us the context we need. There, Wisdom says,

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago…
…when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker… ~Proverbs 8:22, 29b-30

Wisdom is not your average ancient Near Eastern householder. We can stop thinking about her in categories that include human men and human women. They do not apply to her. She is, instead, something or someone eternal. She was present with God at the beginning of creation. And here, she is building her house, with its seven pillars.

Those seven pillars have been nagging at scripture scholars for a long time. They all wonder, what are they? What do they signify? Seven is a number that recurs throughout scripture, and always, there is one underlying meaning to it, whether we are talking about the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit [Isaiah 11:2-3] or the seven churches named in the book of Revelation. Seven is a number of wholeness, completion, perfection, and it always hearkens back to the first biblical occurrence of seven, the seven days of creation. If Wisdom is building a house with seven pillars, we can assume it is no ordinary house, but perhaps, a kind of stand-in for all of creation itself: whole, complete, and perfect.

Wisdom sets her table with bread and wine, and she issues an invitation, both by messenger and in person. She calls, from the towers, or the crests of the hills—from the highest places in town, so that absolutely everyone can hear her, she calls—

You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.” ~ Proverbs 9:4-6

This sumptuous banquet is open to anyone and everyone, with a special emphasis on the “anyone.” Wisdom is not looking for sparkling conversation… she doesn’t require that her guests be as she is, at least, not at the outset. Instead, she offers her table to those who are simple, who are unlearned, who are immature. Come in, she says, and live.

Wisdom—eternal, whole, complete—is inviting us to a feast. Wisdom is having a dinner party, and we are invited.

And the question remains: who or what is Wisdom?

As for the what, it may be easier to say what Wisdom is not. Wisdom is not book-learning, or basic intelligence. That is practically a proverb in itself. Everyone can name intelligent, educated people who don’t seem to have any sense. And, if we are lucky, most of us can also name relatively uneducated or poorly educated people whose wisdom runs deep, who take our breath away with their insight. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, we may not be able to define wisdom, but we know it when we see it. Here’s my best attempt: I think Wisdom is less concerned with what we know, and more concerned with what we do with that knowledge. That is why the simple and immature are welcome at Wisdom’s table. Wisdom can, in fact, be acquired. Wisdom has to do with how we live.

There was a great and wise rabbi who died, and a traveler asked a question of one of his disciples. “Your rabbi was renowned for his wisdom. What did he give greatest attention to in life?”

The disciple thought a minute and said: “To whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.”

Wisdom isn’t about thinking great thoughts or even doing great deeds. If wisdom is about doing anything, it may be that it is about doing it—whatever “it” may be—carefully and thoughtfully and lovingly. I saw a greeting card recently. It shows a woman clad in a lovely housedress and pearls, very much the image we all carry of Donna Reed, and she is holding a heaping platter of prime rib about to be served. The card says, “The secret ingredient is resentment.” The film “Like Water for Chocolate” makes the same point: in it, the main character’s emotions become a part of the food she prepares. The “what” of Wisdom seems to be concerned with how we do things: with attentiveness, what Eastern philosophers have called “mindfulness.” Our parents were right: it it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well—not “well” as in “excellence,” but “well” as in “carefully, thoughtfully, with love.” Wisdom is about doing things with the right intention, and that points us back to the dinner parties thrown by Jesus, in which he offers himself to be feasted upon. These passages are not about cannibalism. They are about intention, the intention with which Jesus feeds us. His intention is to give us himself, completely and totally. His intention can be summed up in the word “love.”

Who or what is Wisdom? The gospel of John begins with a long hymn about the creation of the universe, and the presence of the eternal Word with God in the creation.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people. ~ John 1:1-4

Wisdom was present with God at Creation, as a master-worker; Wisdom is eternal, with God from the beginning of time. It has long been a tradition of Orthodox Christianity to hold that Wisdom is that divine Word, which became incarnate as Jesus Christ. Paul calls Christ “the power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). Constantine is said to have built a church to it, Hagia Sophia: the Holy Wisdom of God.

Wisdom is throwing a feast, and we are all invited. What is it about parties? What is it about gatherings around the table? It may be that it is only gathered around a table—each with our own little piece of God’s wisdom—that true Wisdom is able to emerge. It may be that all the disparate pieces of the body of Christ need to come together—that’s you and me—for the Wisdom of God in Christ to be fully known. It may be that there is no better place than the table—the sharing of the basic stuff of life, whether that is our bread or ourselves—for us to hear the voice of God as it calls us to live. It may be that the seven pillars of Wisdom’s house are as simple and ordinary as the seven days of our week, the days of work and the days of rest, which we are called to participate in mindfully, carefully, one thing at a time.

A disciple asked his teacher, “Holy One, what is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?” And the Holy One answered: “When you have knowledge, you use a torch to show the way. When you are wise, you become the torch.” It may be that in gathering around the table of the Light of the World we have an opportunity to, ourselves, become a part of that light. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wisdom Stories from Joan Chittister, “Wisdom: A Gift or a Task?” Sermon on Proverbs 9:1-6, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, 1996.

The icon of Christ was written by William Hart McNichols, based on an eighteenth-century Russian icon of Hagia Sophia.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rewriting History

Holy Mother of God. Just when you think you've seen it all, something like this comes along.

Texas is the second largest purchaser of textbooks in the country, so if conservative Christians on the Texas Board of Ed panel prevail in their wish to leave Ann Hutchinson (trouble maker!), Cesar Chavez, and Thurgood Marshall out of the social studies curriculum, all of the schools in the US could be affected.

Continue reading here....

By the logic of "these folks" I can see why they want to leave out Ann Hutchinson (questioning religious authorities? NO!). I can even see why they want to leave out Cesar Chavez (working for the rights of "illegals"? NO!). But the leaving out of Thurgood Marshall cannot be "defended" (even as lame as these defenses are) except by admitting to the most naked, ugly racism.

Come on Texas. You're better than this. Prove this Yankee's prejudices wrong and don't DO this.

Monday, August 10, 2009

And on the other...

There's this. (Frank Rich's Sunday piece on whether President Obama has in fact sold out to corporate interests regarding health reform.)

And this. (The Los Angeles Times report that the administration plans, not more, but less environmental cleanup of toxic waste sites than the Bush administration.)

Then there's the whole gay thing.


There's a part of me (the grown up part that understands about delayed gratification) that says: the man inherited a mess of catastrophic proportions, and we just have to give this work time. And I get that. But a part of me (the part that wants dessert before dinner, OK???) begins to have
the sneaking suspicion that, in the name of obvious successes, he will make Faustian bargain after Faustian bargain, until what many liberals have suspected will be proved true: that there is, essentially, no difference between Democans and Republicrats, and everything is determined by the money of lobbyists, and the whole damned thing is so rigged there is no hope.

And he campaigned on hope. And I believed him. (After I got over, you know, the loss of that other dream.)

On the other hand, there's this. Thank Godde. And Yay. And 'bout damned time.

On the One Hand

I love this guy.

Image courtesy of the New York Times (if, by "courtesy," you mean that they allowed me to shamelessly steal it from their website).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Pain of Loss: Sermon on 2 Samuel 18

You all know that I love a good film. I love good storytelling (which is one of the reason I am endlessly enchanted by scripture). I love watching actors embody roles so thoroughly that by the end of the film I am halfway convinced that the boy in the round glasses really can fly on a broomstick and cast spells with a magic wand. I love the way the soundtrack lifts me into the mood of the story, and the lighting, and all kinds of cinematic details I’m sure I don’t even understand. I love the movies! But there is one thing I do not love: arriving late, in the middle of the story. If I am late for a movie I would rather walk out that try to catch up.

This is the conundrum we are presented with in reading this chapter from 2 Samuel. We have arrived late, in the middle of the movie. There are armies massing, and commanders being sent into the field. The passage is filled with unpronounceable Hebrew names, plus one very familiar one. But the fact remains: without some massive catching up, it’s awfully tempting to walk out on this film! So where does this story begin?

We’ve dipped into the story of David several times this summer; the lectionary has been offering us passages from 1 and 2 Samuel since June. Taken together, these passages portray the rise of a king, certainly the most famous and celebrated king of all Israel. But they also give us a remarkably detailed depiction of a man in all his complexity: his humility and his hubris, his courage and his cowardice, his true, enduring love and his sexual appetite run amok. Today’s passage, in a strange way, represents a culmination of all these things—the life of the king and the man, intersecting on the field of battle.

Armies are massing. The leader of the enemy armies is, shockingly, almost unthinkably, Absalom, son of David. You may remember that, when we first met David, the narrator took great pains to describe his physical beauty. Absalom is a chip off the old block. “In all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” [2 Sam. 14:25]. Absalom is particularly noted for the luster and thickness of his hair, which, when he cut it once each year, weighed a full two lbs. In addition to his physical beauty, Absalom has a winning way of dealing with people: he is utterly charming and beloved, and his campaign against David has some serious backing to it. But what on earth has brought him to this point, the point of attempting to overthrow his own father—that is, to kill David, and seize his throne? How far do we have to go back to understand this story?

Do we have to go back to the story of Absalom’s brother and sister? David had eight wives (that we know of), and as many as 17 sons. But scripture tells us the short and sad story of only one daughter, Tamar, also a beauty, Absalom’s full sister. David’s firstborn, Amnon, Absalom’s half-brother, fell in love with Tamar, and according to the laws and customs of that day, he could have asked his father for her hand in marriage and expected to be granted it. But that is not what he did. In a scene that is chilling for the planning and execution of the act, Amnon raped his sister, and then had her expelled from his home. David was angry. But no penalty was ever meted out to his beloved eldest son. Absalom received his devastated sister into his home, and proceeded to brood over this dreadful crime and plan his revenge, until, two years later, he murdered his brother. David was able to ignore the rape of a daughter but could not and would not ignore the murder of a son, and so Absalom was banished.

Is that the beginning of the story? Or do we have to go back even further to understand? David’s inaction in the face of his daughter rape by his son is troubling, to say the very least. Was David hesitant to punish Amnon because he was David’s firstborn? Or is it that here too is a chip off the old block, that Amnon is simply and purely the son of David? David, who took Bathsheba and killed her husband to cover up his crime. Is that the beginning of the story?

Where does any story of violence and bloodshed begin? In the end, does it matter? Because here is where it ends: A father knowing that his son is trying to kill him, but begging his generals to deal gently with the young man. The generals, instead, knowing that war is war, and what must be done, must be done. Absalom, horrifyingly, caught up in the branches of a tree by his beautiful and abundant hair, being run through by eleven of his father’s men. And perhaps the single most wrenching verse in all of scripture: the keening of a father who has lost another child: “Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, oh Absalom, my son, my son!” [2 Samuel 18:33]

The words of Psalm 130 might have emerged from just such a scenario: “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!” It is hard to imagine depths of despair and loss greater than the loss of a child. I read this week the comments of Ralph Milton, a man whose own life experience made this text come alive for him. He wrote,

When I read this passage I can't help but think of my son Lloyd who died by his own hand after years of rebellion and dysfunction. It wasn't his fault. His birth mother gave him the legacy of fetal alcohol syndrome. And where did her alcoholism come from? From a legacy of pain and dysfunction from the way we treated [Native American] people over many generations…

Where does any story of heartbreak and loss begin? We trace the story of David’s heartbreak back and find a tangled, almost un-tangleable tapestry of human choices and fate, with some divine retribution thrown in for good measure. We should be clear: the outcome of this story would be predictable to any ancient readers who had been paying attention. David had shed blood; therefore David’s blood (in the form of the blood of his sons) was shed. This is one biblical ethic of justice, and it’s one that is still quite popular nearly a decade into the twenty-first century. An eye for eye. A tooth for tooth. And the whole world blind and toothless, as our friend Tevye reminds us.

But look at who bucks that trend in the story. Look at the sole character who seeks to find a way out of the dreadful mess that is chapter 18, a way in which the blood of Absalom will not be shed: it is his father, David. Absalom has rallied “all of Israel” against David, and still David implores his henchmen to be gentle with the young man. But, as another commentator I read this week opined, “Some 20,000 soldiers had lost their lives fighting over this man. To return him safely to the king's favor would be like Churchill inviting Hitler to join a post-war cabinet.”

Maybe. David’s willingness to forgive the son who was out to kill him could have been considered downright delusional, a sure sign that it really was time to put the old man out to pasture. Or, it could have been the fruit of a life of great complexity and contradiction, in which, even in the face of his most appalling behavior, David experienced the grace and mercy of God. This is another biblical ethic of justice, though not nearly as popular as the one involving eyes and teeth. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, I have heard it said, like the wideness of the sea. The wideness of God’s mercy can be unsettling to us… it includes, often, forgiveness that we would not, for the most part, be willing to extend. I heard a tale a few years ago of a minister-to-be coming up to be examined by his regional ordaining body. His statement of faith included a vision of the coming reign of God in which the banquet table of heaven included Anne Frank seated side by side with Adolf Hitler. That was just too much for some people. That is just too much for most of us. And yet… if we are serious about the claims scripture makes about God, it is not too much for God. In the face of the shocking, unthinkable offenses we can commit, there is a weeping divine Parent who would far prefer to help us get out of our messes alive.

And sometimes, it is we who are the weeping parents… or children or spouses or siblings or friends. The pain of loss is not unique to those of us who have raised children. No one escapes it. Life deals us these tremendous blows, which the biblical writers often interpret as part of a divine plan. But I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that pain and loss are a part of God’s plan for us. Read the first chapters of Genesis. I believe that fullness of life, abundance and grace are the sum total of God’s plan for us. A beautiful plan that is sometimes broken, and that we claim to understand at our peril. We do not know the reasons. We cannot know the reasons. There may be no reasons. Sometimes, many years later, patterns may emerge in what was untangleable, and we may perceive a design, even a Hand at work. But that may take years, or it may never come until we meet our Maker face to face. And it is always for us to perceive, the ones who have suffered, never for someone else to look at our lives and say, “Oh, here is why that happened.” Those who mourn, those who suffer must be afforded the privilege of discerning the pattern—if indeed there is one—in their own time, and with God’s help, not ours, however well-meaning we might be.

Where does any story of heartbreak and loss begin? It begins, always, with a great risk, a risk we all take with trepidation or with joy. It begins, always, with love. Without love there would be no loss; without caring there would be no heartbreak. Without love, David would shrug his shoulders and say, “There are other sons.” With love, he groans his inarticulate wail of grief. We love, and therefore we will—I promise you—know what it is to grieve. But we love. And that may or may not lessen the pain of our loss. That may or may not impart its wisdom to us. That may or may not make loss bearable. But I can say with conviction: only in loving can we participate in the life of God. Only in loving.

So, let us love. Let us love, knowing that those who love always know loss, even as we know God. Let us love, participating in the overflowing grace of the One who weeps over our rebellion, and still, always, hopes to welcome us home. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sources: Ralph Milton and Jim Taylor, “Opening Comments for Sunday August 9, 2009”, Midrash Online Lectionary Discussion Group.

Image: Absalom, by Albert Weisgerber

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Table Talk: Sermon on John 6:24-35

A couple of years ago a friend clued me in to “Table Topics.” I don’t know if any of you have run across these? They are cards—there are several sets available now—and they are designed to help to stimulate conversation around the table. Here are a few samples:

“Which famous athlete would you love to meet?”

“How did your grandparents meet and fall in love?”

“What will be the best thing about leaving home and what will be the scariest?” (That’s from the “Teen” version.)

“What is the best and worst thing about being a man or a woman?”

The cards were created by a woman who wanted to have sparkling conversation at her cocktail parties. My friend uses these cards in her work as a chaplain with folks in assisted living and nursing facilities. But if you look at the website (and take note of the fact that there are versions targeting teens, married couples, book club members and more), it’s clear their use is intended to be much broader than that. The fact that there’s a set called “the Family Gathering Edition” tells us that these cards are being called upon to do something pretty fundamental. “Table Topics” were created in order to help people talk to one another, specifically, talk to one another while they are breaking bread together.

But why? Why does it matter that we have good conversation around the table? Don’t we come to the table to eat, for heaven’s sake? Isn’t the point of the table the food we set on it? But then I suppose, we could ask, what is the purpose of that food? There is certainly good reason to believe, from a scientific and evolutionary standpoint, that the purpose of food and eating is to provide fuel for the machine that is the body. And if that were it, the end of the story, I suppose each of us could get through the day with injections of perfectly engineered combinations of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, like something out of a science fiction movie. But that doesn’t really appeal to us, so that must not be the end of the story. Even if it is, fundamentally, fuel, food signifies much more than that. Food is not simply, only food. There are layers of meaning around food, like the layers of a delicious orange marmalade cake. It’s complicated, just how it is and why it is that we sit down together at the table.

We are picking up John’s gospel immediately after his retelling of the feeding of the multitudes, and I’ll remind you quickly that we read Mark’s version of that story last week. So, it’s kind of like we’re watching the life of Jesus, by viewing the first part of “Godspell,” and then, in the middle, switching over to “King of Kings.” It’s the same story, but it feels pretty different. I’ve talked a little bit about the gospel of John and how it stands in such stark contrast to the other three gospels. Chapter 6 of John is a great illustration of that contrast. The other three gospels tell the story of the feeding of the 5000, and then they, pretty much, continue on with the action of the story. “Immediately [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side,” Mark tells us, and just like that, they’re off on more adventures. John, on the other hand, spends the rest of chapter 6—the longest chapter in the gospel, a whopping 71 verses!—explaining exactly what just happened. There are questions, and answers, and disagreements, and arguments, all in the service of making sure that we understand exactly what was going on when all those people were able to eat all that food. That’s John, a gospel of words and explanations, and very overt, very un-subtle theological reflections.

Right from the first verses of our reading, Jesus lets us know that there’s someone who does not understand what has just happened. There is someone who, apparently, mistook that food for… food. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” [6:26]. Jesus seems to be scolding the people for following him, because, they seem to think the important thing that just happened is that they were hungry, and now they have been fed. Well, that’s kind of what I thought, too. I believe I actually mentioned that point in my sermon last week.

Jesus continues, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal” [6:27]. There is food, Jesus says, and then, there is food. There is food that will feed your bodies… fuel for these wondrous machines God has created… and then there’s food for your soul. That is what I am about, Jesus says: the food that endures for eternal life.

In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner attempts to reconcile her Jewish upbringing with the Christian faith she has found as an adult. In one chapter she says:

Because I kept kosher (the word comes from the Hebrew for “fit” or “appropriate”), I thought about the food I ate. I thought about what I was going to eat, and where I was going to procure it, and how I was going to prepare it… Only after I stopped keeping kosher did I fully appreciate that [that practice] had shaped more than my grocery lists. It also shaped my spiritual life. Keeping kosher transforms eating from a mere nutritional necessity into an act of faithfulness. If you keep kosher, the protagonist of your meal is not you; it is God.

There is food, and then there is food. There is eating, and then there is eating. What good is it, Jesus seems to be saying, if your stomachs are full if you have no idea who is the author of the feast? What good is it if you settle for full stomachs, when you also have the option of full souls?

I suspect this is, in the end, the motivation behind “Table Topics”… this idea that there’s no point feeding our bodies if our souls and intellects are left to starve. And we are starving for lack of knowing one another. Every time we eat dinner in front of the TV or the computer, rather than looking one another in the eyes and truly being present to one another, we are starving ourselves of the deep and meaning-filled relationships we could have. Yes, by all means, feast on the bread, Jesus says. But don’t forget to feast on me! Don’t forget to feast on the one who comes in me and through me.

Every month we lay the table for a meal, and it’s funny kind of a meal. A tiny piece of bread—or more, if you can tear it off yourself and are hungry for a larger hunk. A small sip of juice, or whatever your bread can soak up. A funny, tiny, almost insignificant kind of a meal. Early on in the church, they gathered for much larger meals—banquets! People fought for the chance to get to the early seating, so that they could be sure to fill their stomachs. And then, at a certain point in our history, someone decided that those meals, rather than pointing towards God, were actually turning the people’s focus in the wrong direction. And so the custom of bread and the fruit of the vine, a small meal, a symbolic meal, yet one so full of relationship it might as well be a feast… that custom was born. That is the custom we carry forward today. Bread that is so much more than bread. Fruit of the vine that is so much more than the fruit of the vine. Food that is so much more than food, because it draws our attention beyond the food to the creator of the food. A meal that is simultaneously so much less than a meal (as defined by our super-sized appetites), and yet so much more than a meal (as defined by the love of the one who serves it to us).

There is food, Jesus says, and then, there is food. There is food that will feed your bodies… fuel for these wondrous machines God has created… and then there’s food for your soul. That is what I am about, Jesus says: the food that endures for eternal life. We gather around tables. This table, the table in your dining room, the picnic table in your backyard, the table in the Fellowship Hall. We gather around tables and we hunger to be filled… with bread, and with the bread of life. The table we gather around today offers a meal that is served with the abundance that only Christ offers us. A feast that satisfies not only our bodies but our souls. Bread and fruit of the vine that fills not only stomachs but us as people. Come and feast on the gifts of God for the people of God and thanks be to God for the feast! Amen.

With thanks to KnittinPreacher! You know how to get a girl out of a jam.