Archive for February, 2011

Winter in Her Eyes

Sunday, February 27th, 2011
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Luke 13:1-9

1. A Pasture View
A friend told me a story one winter. It is not a Ground Hog Day story, nor a Valentine’s Day story, nor a Presidents’ Day story, but simply a winter story.

He has friends who live on a farm in Michigan. This is a multi-generational family farm. If you were to visit this week, you would find three generations working together. The grandfather died a few years ago, but his sons, grandsons and great grandsons still plow and harvest, milk and feed.

The matriarch of the family is now older and weaker. She was a typical farm wife of her generation, working alongside her children and husband. When plowing time came in the spring she would fix lunches for all hands, and deliver them into the fields. She delivered the meal, and while they ate, she would take over and plow. The same kinds of routines held for other seasons. The rhythms of seed and harvest, birth and decay set the beat for her life.

Now she is alone much of the time, in the old farm house. Her kids feed her breakfast in the morning and dinner at night. But every day, after breakfast, they settle her into a comfortable easy chair that rocks in front of an open bay window, from which she can look out onto the fields and forests and pastures of her home. Every day she watches, breakfast to dinner.

Now this is not an active scene. The barn and equipment are not in view. Most winter days there are no people to observe. A car on the road every half-hour is a lot of traffic. And snow lying on corn stubble looks about as exciting as it did one hundred years ago. Yet, she watches and looks. She seems to be deeply contented, as the late winter snow falls. She is eased and settled and comforted, looking out on a frosty field. There is something in that utterly ordinary scene that seizes her.

She has a sense, I think, of presence. Maybe she is weak and maybe she even has some mild dementia and maybe she doses every now and then, rocking in front of the window. But this ordinary winter story captivates me, because I think she is enthralled by something not quite visible to the naked eye, yet present. There is something there, something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension. She rocks and stays alert to presence. She has a hard won trust in Presence, a kind of trust for which life is meant and for which with all our hearts we do passionately long and hunger.

2. A Vineyard View

The Gospel lesson for today tells of another view, not a pasture view but a vineyard view, not from Michigan but from Palestine, not of wheat but of grapes, not in winter but in harvest. This is one of the parables of the fig tree.

Ah the fig tree. From the fig tree learn its lesson. You know what it means to be a fig tree in the New Testament. It is like being a turkey in late November or like being a green beer on St Patrick’s day. You know you are going down.

People step aside when they hear that the story is about a fig tree. They step back ten feet, because they know what is coming.

Sure enough, at least at the outset, doom descends. In stomps the
The owner. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Fee fie foe fum. Yes, we know what is coming. I have seen this lousy, lazy, no good, flee bitten moth eaten, barren, fruitless, faithless, heartless, ruthless fig tree for three years, and nothing. Where is the fruit? Where is the beef? Show me the money! Yes, we have a sinking feeling about the old fig tree, having heard a sermon or three. Is there not fruit? And here it comes… Cut it down, throw it in the fire, off with their heads.

And in the other Gospels, that is that. One dead fig tree, and let it be a warning to us. I came not to bring peace but a sword. Not a jot or a tittle will pass away. Woe to you…

Which is, of course, what makes today’s lesson so interesting. Guess what? It’s not over, at least according to Jesus in Luke 13. No, it’s not over, yet. This is the Gospel according to Yogi Berra, who I read is in attendance at spring training this week. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over”. With a little cunning and creativity, a little psalmist and saint in him, this lowly vinedresser says, “Well, hang on a minute…” There is something there. He sees something. Something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension.

3. A Pasture View

Meanwhile, down on the Michigan farm…

It is this same trust that keeps the woman at the farm house window, keeps her there and alive and attentive.

Picture her, this week, if you need and want reassurance. She has seen life from both sides. Hail and blizzard. Silo accident and depression. Birth and death. Happiness in youth and tragedy in age. She has seen her husband grow up and grow old and die, as most wives do. She has cleaned out the barn, stretched a budget to fit over many children, and kept the Sabbath in the process. And now she just watches. Today there is a light snow falling to dust the corn stubble, and the wind is strong.

I mean this. Whether or not she knows about heaven, she certainly knows about hell. She knows about regret and anxiety. John Paul Sartre said that hell is other people, a continental dyspepsia that I have never understood. Two shorter, better definitions of hell are regret and anxiety. Our rocking farm wife has known them, too. How could she not? Regret when the son leaves the farm for dental school. Anxiety over the crop planted but not harvested. Regret at trips to Florida never taken when grandpa was well. Anxiety over aging and care and dependence. Regret over misdeeds in youth and mistakes in speech. Anxiety about all that is yet to be, on earth as it is in heaven. Regret is hell in the past tense. Anxiety is hell in the future tense.

Nevertheless (a sermon in a single word), Nevertheless, she rocks and watches and is comforted by what she sees. To you and me, what she sees is Andrew Wyeth on a bad day. But she sees something else. There is something there. There is something alive, at work, just below the edge of our comprehension. Maybe it helps the vision to have a mild dementia. What heals regret and what tempers anxiety is what we are given–in trust.

4. A Vineyard View

Meanwhile, back in Palestine…

Trust is what the vinedresser in our parable displays. He has a certain confidence, perhaps a confidence born of obedience to a great and loving Lord, yet still a confidence that where there is a will there is a way, no matter what the immediate corn stubble evidence suggests.

I struggle to intuit why this altered fig tree parable was so important for Luke and Luke’s struggling church. They must have had singular meaning for Luke’s church seventy years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps, perhaps, the parable is meant to give trusting patience to those who are waiting out what scholars call the “delay of the parousia”, or the expected but not actualized return of Christ on the clouds of heaven (1 Thess. 4-5). “Give me just a little more time…” sings the gardener.

Let it be, he says. Let it be.

His i
s not a naïve view. No, he recognizes that there comes a time when it is too late in every venture. He recognizes that the power to kill and give life is not his own. He recognizes that human labor and human investment is required for any progress. He recognizes the messiness of manure and dailyness of water. He recognizes that trust for the future is trust, not in human wisdom, but in divine grace. He recognizes the rigid limits of nature and history. He is a realist.

But he trusts that there is something there, something alive, something not quite phenomenal, something just beyond our comprehension.

I could compare his sense, his trust to a late February or early March day when it is still winter. Yet, there is a sense, a feeling. There are geese flying past, v by v. There is a blueish tint in the evergreens. There is more light and better light. There is wind, but not with quite the bite. A light snow, maybe, like this morning. One can fairly taste the maple syrup brewing miles away. Spring is coming.

Give me just a little more time, he asks. Do you have the feeling that he will ask the same a year from now, if things are no different? I do. He harbors an inexplicable but crucial sense of trust that things will work out.

As a Methodist Christian, I want that trust in my heart as I see the left and right fight. Some of us talk from the left, and yet live from the right. Others talk from the right and live from the left. We talk a good social liberal game, but support all manner of segregation and injustice in where we live, how we live, as we live. We talk a good moral conservative game, but support all manner of waywardness when our own rights are at stake. If I read Amos right, social justice and personal morality go together, and where you lack one over time you lack the other. It looks like snow on cornstalks, an ugly sameness. I want to shout: “Give me just a little more time! Another generation, some manure and water, that is a few good preachers and a few more dollars, and you just watch the figs fall, too many to count!” I want that trust that there is something there, alive, incomprehensible, that may change the equation. I want that trust that there is something alive, incomprehensible, that may open up a different conversation, a new way that honestly respects both the plumb line of justice and the plumb line of righteousness, as well as the historical, organizational, relational and other peculiarities of life.

As a minister, I want to be able to offer a sense of trust to you. Right now. Realistically, yes, but personally and truly. In place of your heartfelt regret, carried like a millstone for months or years. In place of your frightful and human anxiety, carried like a millstone for months and years. The anxieties of youth and the regrets of age. May they be gone. I want that trust that there is something close to your heart, alive, maybe not quite comprehensible, that whispers…let it be…give it another year…maybe a little manure and water…let it be.

And as person, a human being, stuck somewhere between regret and anxiety, I want that trust, that simple trust like those who heard beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them without a word rise up and follow thee.

5. A Pasture View

Meanwhile, down on the farm…

Think about her this week, alone and content, looking out onto a gray pasture.

What keeps her going? What helps her see? What makes her happy? What brings her comfort and peace?

Is it that trust, that human response to the faith of Jesus Christ, that loving trust that “bears all things believes all things hopes all things and endures all things”? (1 Corinthians 13)

One early follower of Jesus said, “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?” (Paul of Tarsus).

An Irish man, Patrick, a killer of snakes and a lover of souls pronounced the same blessing, of “Christ before me Christ beneath?” (St. Patrick’s breastplate)

Listen to that medieval convent maiden’s prayer, “and all will be well and all will be well?” (Julian of Norwich).

As they sing at Taize, “ubi caritas, deus ibi est”?

There is something, Someone, there. Alive and untamed. Creating trust, trust, trust, deep in the heart.

Paul Lehmann taught us, “God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human.”

Ralph Harper learned, “Presence suggests an alternate way of thinking about time and space”.

In an early pastoral visit, I heard a homebound octogenarian, eyes gleaming, affirm: “I know whom I can trust.”

David sang in the Psalms, “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

And together, in fine four part harmony, we shall sing together this morning:

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake
I will never, no never, no never forsake.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

With Malice Towards None

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

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Matthew 5:38-48

What a beautiful morning!Crisp. Clean. Blue. True. What a beautiful day!

One bright morning moment, one day within the great and everlasting day of divine love, one pause to remember and hope in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom, as the Apostle pronounced, it is not ‘yes and no’, but in him it is always Yes (2 Cor. 1). We might summarize Matthew 5: 39 in words from 150 years ago:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.

If the roads are clear this cold season is a fine time to travel in the mountains, north and west, and into Lake Placid NY. Near there you find a most exotically named preaching assignment, a four point charge: Owls Head, Chasm Falls, Mountainview, and Wolf Pond. You might pass through the strangely frightening prison town of Dannemora. I remember visiting near there the hunting lodge of a friend. He stood snow splattered in his meadow watching and listening to Nature in her farthest reach and said, “It’s so wild up here”.

Lake Placid itself seems like the top of the world, especially in the winter. Winter is our most visually beautiful season here in the north. We are in fact ice people, no bad thing. The world needs both fire and ice. Here is Mirror Lake. Here is the Olympic Pavilion. Here is the ski lift from which to view the grandeur of the mountains, the poverty of the north country, the stark serenity of Old Man Winter, a colossus striding upon the earth. You are on top of the world, or at least as far up as we get around here.

Before you go off to dinner or the hot tub, I propose a further little visit. Out behind the ski lift, a long way from the road and not overly well marked, there is a gravesite. Trudge a few paces into the snow and take a look. There, if you brush back the powder, you can make out the name and dates. Under mountain shadows, hidden in the ice box of the north, covered at least half the year with a beautiful white blanket of snow, there lies the body of John Brown, 1800-1859, whose flint like personality, bent to violence, and fiery rhetoric helped ignite the civil war, which began 150 years ago. His is a fitting rough grave lost in the outback of the Empire State. He lies just about as far from the Mason Dixon line as one go, and still stay within the country.

Gardner Taylor once said that we have not allowed the greatest tragedy of our history as a people, the Civil War, to teach us as much as it might. 600,000 men lost their lives in four years, 150 years ago.

150 years is not that long ago. I can remember very sharply the events and remembrances of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in the early and middle1960’s, a third of the way back. We have a shared history, from well before and after 1861. It is out of that long history that we pause for a moment this morning to listen to the Gospel of Matthew 5:39. While there are easier sentences which might tempt us here in this reading, we shall listen to the hardest for interpreters, ‘Do not resist one who is evil’.

As today’s reading reminds us, we are from a deep, though intricately varied ethical tradition that enshrines selfless love, christocentric love, cruciform love as the cherished ideal of human behavior. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies’.

We have here over some years tried to hear the beautiful chorus, the four part harmony of the Scripture in the Gospels. So today. The flickering soprano melody, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth, teaching us to love, to love others, to love all, to love with malice toward none, yes, to love our enemies. The contralto struggles of the primitive church, waiting and waiting for the promised, expected, proximate return of the Lord, and developing a missionary tract, found here and in Luke 6, for use in teaching. The tenor, Matthew, our gospel writer, who has collected and composed, and waits too, waits long, substituting ‘you must be perfect (whole, complete, true)’ for Luke’s ‘be ye merciful’. And the bass, stretching from the Mediterranean community of the first century, to the Charles River gathering of Marsh Chapel. Jesus. Church. Writer. Legacy. Soprano. Alto. Tenor. Bass.

If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Coat, cloak. One mile, two. If you love those who love you, what reward have you?

Again, we might with these verses stay with the heavy emphasis they clearly have on personal relationships, where the ice is thicker and we are safer. For an individual, alone and with no responsibilities to others, there are many options for self less self sacrifice. But the hard question, and the spot on the pond where the ice gets thin, or at least thinner, is ‘how far the principle can be applied to groups, and especially political life’ (IB loc cit). Our recognition that the dominant alto\tenor voices of the early church and evangelist, expecting the very soon return of Christ, and hence shading this ethic as an interim ethic, helps but does not mute the soprano melody, ‘resist not’. Hear is a ringing question placed against the ethic of retaliation that dates to Hammurabi, to Roman Law, to Aeschylus, and is epitomized in the lex talionis, eye and tooth. Resist not., says 5: 39.

So how shall hear this verse?

Especially, how shall we hear this verse in relation to the brief span of human history given to our keeping?

Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable conciseness as one must in a twenty two minute sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought. As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and just war understandings.

Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the New Testament (which even here in Matthew, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism): “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”. Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today. My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit through the whole Second World War. Think about that for a minute. I did for more than a minute when I preached from that very pulpit last June. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with him, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what his judgment might be.

The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine. Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages. Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today
, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live. Just war thought includes several serious caveats. We together need to know and recall these, in five forms: a just cause in response to serious evil, a just intention for restoration of peace with justice, an absence of self-enrichment or desire for devastation, a use as an utterly last resort, a claim of legitimate authority, and a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants). Response. Restoration. Restraint. Last resort. Common authority.

Prayerfully, we each and we all will want to consider our own understanding, our own ethic, our own choice and choices between these two basic alternatives. But the careful listener this February of 2011 will want a thought or two about how, together, how as those who influence culture together, we might positively and proactively sing the four part chorus of love, and live out Matthew 5:38ff. We could use some help here. At least I could…

We will pause now to welcome a visitor to our service. Welcome. You will find him to my right, and down the west aisle of the chapel. He is standing alone, and has been with us before. Actually, his worship attendance has been perfect for 60 years, a far better record than he had in life. For he is enshrined in one of our Connick stained glass windows, one of the many novel choices the fourth President of Boston University, Daniel Marsh, made in designing our chapel. Lincoln may be able to offer us some assistance today, on President’s weekend.

A year before John Brown entered his post retirement home in Lake Placid, in the fall of 1858, two men as different as life and death stood beside each other on debate platforms in Illinois. To the right was the carefully groomed, smooth speaking, dapperly dressed Senator Stephen Douglas. To his left, looking like a bumpkin, stood a gangly, homely man, overly tall and saddled with a high pitched, irritating voice. They debated for the heart of the country, and Lincoln lost. In his career he lost and lost and lost. In 1858 he lost, even though virtually every point he made in his speeches proved true. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others you have lost the genius of your own independence. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. True, true, true. He won in 1860, but in 1862 his party was thrashed (he said, ‘I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh’), in 1863 the horror of Gettysburg quickened his finest address, in 1864, challenged by his own subordinate, he barely won, and in 1865, on Good Friday, he too was dead. Lincoln spoke of his country in soaring phrase, ‘the last, best hope’.

I believe that we as a people can, in some measure, live out Lincoln’s majestic hope, of this land as a ‘last, best hope’. I offer, I believe in continuity with the Scripture as read today, two promissory notes. Our culture languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise. But a quickened excitement for the power of forbearance and the peace of a discipline against resentment can help us live out a faith engaged with culture, and help us build a culture amenable to faith. Forbearance. A spiritual discipline against resentment.

We may be entering an Epoch of Forbearance. You will remember something of forbearance, patient restraint, a great power for doing good. Sometimes it is better to have patience than brains. If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, if we can forbear, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope. We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace. Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and hope of ‘malice toward none’.

We may also be entering an Epoch of Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment. Here I simply refer to a great American and a greater historian, Christopher Lasch:

The only way to break the ‘endless cycle’ of injustice, Niebuhr argued, was nonviolent coercion, with its spiritual discipline against resentment. In order to undermine an oppressor’s claims to moral superiority, (one) has to avoid such claims on their own behalf.

Again, in the confines of a sermon, I can only sketch. Lasch’s essay distilled this theme, a spiritual discipline against resentment, from the lives and writings of Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, the Boston Personalists, and many others. He saw, as we too may see in the Matthean passage earlier read, the necessity of holding at bay those deeply human sentiments that easily, and tragically, attach themselves to us when we are fearful, attacked, and violated. For a future to emerge that is more than simply a repetition of the patterns of the past, a people must develop a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’. If we can model as a people this discipline, others around the globe will find cause to agree with Lincoln’s assessment of this land as a last, best hope. Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and a hope of ‘malice toward none’.

What is this discipline? What does it look like? How is one to find its power? Truly I see no other source than a confessional reliance on the Christ of Calvary, and no better reading than the one we heard a moment ago.

An Epoch of Forbearance. A Spiritual Discipline against Resentment. I am not at all sure that I can define these for you, but I can give you an example, in life and speech. It was the genius of Lincoln, which best bespoke this twin hope, especially in his second inaugural. Within two months of writing and offering these words, he was dead. Yet listen to his wise admonition to forbearance and discipline against resentment:

March 4, 1865 (in passim)

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first…
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came…
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat o f other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

Love Song

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

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Matthew 5:21-26

Three things are too wonderful for me, four I cannot understand…

Some years ago an undergraduate student asked to talk. She was part of a large religion class at a small religious college. We sat and got acquainted. Then she began to cry. Some people have very little experience in crying and you can tell because they are so surprised at the physical sensation of it. The more she tried to stop the harder the tears came. The more she apologized (she needn’t have of course, what are tears for if not to be shared?), the harder they came. The more she protested, ‘this never happens to me’, the more the torrent fell. She had been an independent, very strong, very successful person, student, friend, and worker. When her boyfriend decided to ‘start seeing other people’, she took it in stride. Or thought she had. Yet several weeks later, she found herself mired in melancholy, and seeking out the counsel of a teacher she hardly knew.

Boxes of Kleenex later, she left with a smile, a bit of gentle and wise self-mockery to undergird her wonder and vulnerability, and her feet underneath her again. She would be OK. But as she said, those weeks taught her something. Love is real, and hurts. If you love, you may get hurt. Hearts break. There is something overwhelmingly potent in the actual, lived experience, particularly when we are young, of loving someone. Love is real and can really hurt.

Most churches have prayer request cards and boxes. Sometimes a prayer will come through that more than most makes you stop in your tracks. (The BU ‘post-secret’ project, now in its second year, is a kind of prayer request box, or at least an anonymous and therapeutic confessional. ) In one community we received a written prayer request in these words: ‘Why is marriage so difficult? Does it get easier? Please say a prayer for us to help us get through our differences. Help me find forgiveness.’ Love hurts. Love means having to say you are sorry.

Last autumn our choir and choir spouses and groupies went out after practice for some refreshment. The evening went along pretty well, until someone in the alto section raised the question of the greatest movie ever made. Someone in another section said, ‘Love Story’. This produced mayhem, most present not having ever seen the film, and most who had decrying its quality. A few hardy, courageous and insightful souls stood in the breech and defended the movie, or at least Allie McGraw. But even these marines of the spirit could not finally defend the movie’s proverb: ‘love means never having to say you are sorry’. Love is all about sorry, and more sorry, as we know.

Human Love:

*One Solomon song sings of human love. And how it sings! So loud it sings and so dearly and strong that the sages in Jamnia nearly excluded it from the canon!

You will have your choicest choices. Here are two:

Arise my love, my fair one,
And come away;
For lo 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.
(Song of Songs 2: 10-12)

Behold you are beautiful, my love
Behold you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
Behind your veil
Your hair is like a flock of goat
Moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes.
Your lips are like a scarlet thread
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate…
…(YOU CAN READ THE REST YOURSELF!!)..
You are all fair my love;
There is no flaw in you.
(Song of Songs 4: 1-8)

*Collected in the Canticles are love poems, erotic poems, poems of praise for human love. One of our members asked a year ago whether any sermons are ever preached on the Song. The implication was there that the verses are simply too hot to handle! Last week another member related that in childhood, advised to read the Bible, she had stumbled into these verses. I believe she said, Wow!

Saddled with other challenges for a few decades, the historic church may have lost of some of our voice about love, human love, sexuality, human sexuality, and the ardent themes of the Song of Songs, the meta-song of the Hebrew Scripture. While our own straitened conditions in the church, and our inwardly turned attention to the details of liturgy may constrain us, all about us the culture calls out for the good news of these chapters. It is still the same old story.

The verses of this book may have arisen as wedding songs. They celebrate love leading toward marriage and love established in marriage, without a great deal of distinction between the two. They acknowledge the power of love. They drape their music in the imagery of the natural world. They shout for joy for the joyful shout of love, human love. As a pastor, father, friend, now minister to a University community, I might have wished a little more didactic material had found its way into the Canticle. A little admonition about commitment. A little recognition of selfishness. A little sober admission of imperfection. A little paternal warning about regret and regrets. Well, we shall have to find these in other pages of the Scripture, for these songs are flying to other places. They reflect the human experience of the ages. They delight in delight. They delight in delight!

Yes, I could interpret and amend these passages to make sure that we include partnership and friendship as well as covenant and marriage. Yes, we could dwell for a moment on the difference between the literature here and that in the rest of the Bible: ’there is no overt religious content corresponding to the other books of the Bible’ (IBD op cit). Yes, I could remember the sectarian Jewish warning that the book should only be opened and read after age thirty. We use when we should love and vice versa. Thus, though, I would miss the point. The Song of Solomon sings of blessing!

Human love is blessed.

Love Divine

But there are two Songs of Solomon, one of heart and one of soul, one of flesh and one of spirit, one of earth and one of heaven, one of human love and one of love divine.

Another Solomon song sings of love divine.
The allegorical, cultic, dramatic and other non-literal readings of the Song of Solomon have less influence today. In any case, they fall fairly quickly in the face of the ardent, strong sensuality of the collection. The rabbis early allegorized the Song to refer to Yahweh and Israel. The church early followed suit, and allegorized the Song to refer to Christ and the Church, or to God and the soul. Hosea had already used the allegory, in his beautiful chapters, the 11th being perhaps the loveliest in Scripture. But he done so forthrightly, intending and intoning the allegory directly. ‘When Israel was a child I loved him.’ As a reading of the text, it must be said today, that the allegory superimposes something not apparent or present.

What is dethroned from Scripture, however, experience re-crowns. It is not without wisdom that this bit of wisdom literature has been taken to refer, in a Lenten fashion, to the love of the soul for God, to the love of God for the soul, to the love the church for Christ, to the love of Christ for the church. After all, how are we ever going to picture, to propose the relationship of the human being to God?

Here is today’s gospel message:

What can prepare us for intimacy with the divine, if not human intimacy?

What can prepare us for covenant with the divine, if not human covenant?

What can prepare us for fellowship with the divine, if not human fellowship?

What can prepare us for love of the divine, if not human love?

Where else are we going to learn the rhythms of relationship that prepare a community and its individuals, an individual and his communities, for ultimate relationship?

No wonder Plato wrote so tenderly and toughly about friendship. No wonder John the Evangelist epitomized discipleship in the portrait of one ‘beloved’. No wonder Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs and never got past the second chapter! No wonder that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila took Italian love poetry and formed their religious poetry on their models. No wonder that even today there is a returning interest in ‘nuptial mysticism’, a recognition that love, friendship, partnership, marriage shape a soulful habit of living. It is in the relationship of lover and beloved that we plumb the depths of experience.

In the mountains northwest of Madrid, you will find nestled the little old Castilian village of Segovia. I spent only a year there. I walked its cobbled streets during the evening paseo. I was befriended by its teenagers. Adios Roberto. Adios Marie Carmen. Adios Celia. Adios Eduardo. I gazed out at the mountain range that had inspired Hemingway. I ate the baked lamb and drank the red wine of that region. I admired its aqueduct. I photographed its castle. I learned the language, the humor, the humors, the history, the heart, the soul of a noble people. I walked in the dark late night rain and greeted the town crier and constable: ‘Adios’. Someday I hope to return. I find that Segovia appears with more regularity in my dreams now than it has for thirty years past.

I visited there the resting place of St. John of the Cross. I read and remembered his poetry: en una noche oscura, con ansias en amores inflamadas, o dichosa ventura!, sali sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada.

Our hearts are restless, restless, until they find their rest in the divine, the second song of Solomon. Such a word of longing! Is there anything, any theme more perennial than that of longing!?!

Set me as a seal upon your heart
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is strong as death,
Jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
All the wealth of his house
It would be utterly scorned.

*Human love is blessed—by God.

Invitation

*There are two Songs of Solomon…

In earshot of the two Songs of Solomon, love divine and human both, let me invite you to a better life.

Let me invite you to cherish friendship, and to bathe friendship, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to honor partnership, and to bathe partnership, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to enjoy affection, and to bathe affection, like a lover, in warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to revere marriage, and to bathe marriage, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention.

For such friendship may frame your soul in communion with the divine. Such partnership may prepare your soul for commerce with the divine. Such affection may prepare your psyche for intimacy with the divine. Such marriage may open you…to God.

“Love is strong as death and hard as hell.” (SOS 8:6)

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Word and Table: Grace

Sunday, February 6th, 2011
There is no sermon text for this week.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel