Monthly Archives: September 2015

Step One

This morning I was reminded how important step one is.

I started running again. It’s been a few years since this was my daily obsession, but I have been determined to re-start. I was doing pretty well all summer, until my time and energy got consumed by a recent move. Today wasn’t my first run in the new neighborhood. I’ve been out there a few mornings in the past couple weeks. But it was the first one this week – the first one in several days due to an overflowing September schedule. It also was my first Monday morning run from the new house – which is significant because Sundays tend to tire out this preacher.

I’ve finally figured out what the new running route will be. It took a few attempts because this new neighborhood is (an understatement) hilly. No matter which way I go, there either will be an immediate incline or a slow and steady rise. I’ve settled on the immediate incline that I walk up as my warm-up. Of course most running mornings, I’ve already been up the hill and back once on a walk with my little dog, as was the case this morning. When I went back out without him, I got to the top of the immediate incline and found myself not quite ready to start. Agh. It was mind over matter. I had to force my right foot to take the first stride, then left, then right, then left, literally willing myself on for quite some time. I could feel the weariness everywhere. And I noticed for the first time on this route that the immediate incline turns into a slow and steady ascent all the way to the end of the street. Agh. Agh!

Step one. For lots of reasons this morning, it was particularly difficult. As was step two and three that followed – a reminder that sometimes it just is.

I reflected upon a poem recently that was called Start Close In (by David Whyte). The wisdom it imparted was to just begin. There is no need to fret first over step two and three and fifty-six if we never take step one.

How often is life like that?

What step one do I need to take . . . not on a running route but in my work? In my relationships? In chasing my dreams?

What ones do you?

Only begin. Even if it takes mind over matter, even if you don’t know where the road will lead, even if you worry that way won’t unfold beneath your feet. (BTW: it will!)

Take your first step. The adventure of your lifetime will not begin without it!

Step one. Only begin.

@ Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)

Your Great Cloud

A Sermon for 13 September 2015 – Worship inspired by the Scottish Highland Games

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-31, 12:1-3

A reading of various verses from Hebrews chapter 11 and 12. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. . . . By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’ . . . By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. . . . Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Perhaps you’re like me and today, in this Scottish-inspired service of worship, is the first time you’ve really heard of tartans. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing of our ancestors – at least I hope not! . . . After a year and a half of having my life in storage, it all arrived this week at the house I’ve been moving into. Box after box after box! Though exhausting, the fun has been unpacking to find hidden treasures. Late the other night, I tackled a dish barrel that wasn’t very well labeled. Before I knew it, I was walking down memory lane. I unwrapped dish after dish after dish from my maternal grandmother. Sometime when I was about ten, my grandmother set out to buy up 24 place settings of dishes for one of my sisters, our cousin, and myself. Do you remember when you used to be able to do that one piece at a time at the grocery store? 24 plates, 24 cups, and 24 saucers for each of the three of us. As I unwrapped my set the other night, I was overwhelmed by the determination of my grandmother. That couldn’t have been an easy task! Through that grocery store points for dishes or however that all worked, she was dead-set on ensuring the three of us had enough place settings to feed a small army! The wonderful thing is that her devoted gift connects me still not just to her, but in a special way to my sister and cousin too. Grandma died while the three of us still were in high school – which really turned our lives upside-down as she was the pillar of our family who got us all together at her house at least one or two Sunday lunches a month. Her place settings remind me of her deep commitment to being a family together. Knowing each other and sitting down together regularly to eat and laugh and enjoy each other. I hope today you too can remember a grandmother like that!

In another box from the moving truck, I pulled out memories of my paternal great-grandfather. He was ancient for as long as I can remember him. No longer able to see when I was a kid, great-grandpa and great grand-ma lived next door. It was a great treat to be the one to bring them their daily mail. Great-grandma would go to get you a cookie while great-grandpa entertained you with his simple tricks. He had this thing he could do with his fingers – some cool way of rapping his knuckles on the counter top that I never have been able to mimic. In the winters he logged in the woods at the lake, which is how he lost half of the fingers on his left hand. It’s what made him make that extra cool noise when he rapped his fingers on the countertop. He always wanted to make us kids figure out some sort of trick. He engaged us and taught us so much – some of it even useful. Did you have the good fortune of knowing such a great-grandparent? . . . Before my great-grandpa lost half his fingers, he was an amazing artist. Chalk was his preferred medium and I am proud to have three incredibly intricate, beautiful scenes he created. I’m sure some would look at them and think: “Uh. They’re ok.” I look at them and remember the hands of that loving man who was a tender trickster – the way he showed his great-grandchildren that we really mattered to him. And whatever wisdom, love, and fun he could pass on to us, he’d certainly do his best to do it.

It’s not just the tartans and family symbols we’ve each brought here with us today that remind me of such things. It’s Hebrews also. Abraham and Sarah. The faith of Moses and the Israelites. Even Rahab, a foreign prostitute, whose courageous actions on behalf of God’s people name her a hero in the great line of faith from which we all come. Such an amazing cloud of witnesses, Hebrews reminds us. All of them – though we’ve not met them in person – still, as ancestors in Christ, it’s as if they surround us in this great arena called life. Urging us on by the testimony of their lives. By the encouragement of their faith. Like a roaring crowd of fans peering on the field to see how the players carry out the next move. All of these surround us each day as we seek to faithfully live the moments of our lives. . . . We’ve got the incredible trust of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah too. Imagine setting out for a whole new way of life when you’re about 80 years old – all because God shows up to whisper in your ear: “I’ve got a little something yet for you to do.” . . . And Moses. We fail to remember his great sacrifice. He could have kept himself in line with the Pharaoh of Egypt, having been raised by the princess in her kingly father’s luxurious palace. But somehow Moses not only saw the injustice, but he also decided to side against it. He was enraged by the suffering of his people who had been made slaves of the Pharaoh in order to keep him and his land in the lavish lifestyle they had come to expect. Moses fled Egypt – only to be brought back years later as a mighty liberator. One courageous enough to go stand before the Pharaoh to say: “The Sovereign LORD of the universe says: ‘let my people go!’” . . . And what about Rahab? She didn’t have to act with such bravery. She didn’t have to aid the spies of Israel against her own Canaanite people. Her courage, her insight, her determination to keep peace for herself and her family with those besieging her city ensured she and her family were safe – even as she showed her awe of the God of the Israelite people (Joshua 2). . . . These all are a part of our collective great cloud. Those from whom we can learn because of the faithful examples of their lives.

What about your great cloud? Who else from your life is a part of it? . . . I wish each one of us had time to tell today of the family symbols we’ve brought. But more so, I wish we each could speak of the way we’ve been shaped by the people behind our symbols. Maybe we can tell each other about it at coffee in the fellowship hall after worship. . . . Did you learn to read because of one of them? Did you know your worth because of one of them? Despite one of them, did you grow into a more loving person – a person ready and able to let go and forgive so you wouldn’t become a reflection of another’s bitterness? . . . Who is in your great cloud cheering you on each day? Leading you by the example of their lives all throughout your years? We are because they were – are still. . . . As our liturgy of the tartans reminded us at the start of this service: we have a responsibility because of them – because of the heritage of faith passed on to us by them. . . . We have been gifted, and comforted, and challenged by the love of our families – our moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas and brothers and sisters all in God’s great family of faith. Because of them – because of those who make up our great cloud, we are to welcome the stranger as one of our own. We are to sacrifice too to live out the love of God despite the cost because others will come after us who need our lives to be their testimonies. Because of the families and nations and ancestors all around, we give thanks to God and we re-commit ourselves to doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God. This is our way to be Christ’s grace each day. This is our way to carry on the faith of our great cloud and ensure our lives are added to the great cloud for the benefit of those yet to come.

Therefore, carry on! As the writer of Hebrews so eloquently put it: “Run! Run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 11:1b-2a). Do not grow weary or lose heart. . . . And when you feel like you are, listen for the cheers of your great cloud! Let them direct you back onto Christ’s path each day!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

Open

A Sermon for 6 September 2015

A reading from Romans 12:1-5. Listen for God’s word to us.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

We’re finally at it: the fourth of our four weeks on section F of the Book of Order. Presbyterian Foundational Principles. Foundation #4 is not quite as long as Foundation # 3 – the Calling of the Church. Remember Foundation #1 is God’s mission. Foundation #2 is Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. And just to be sure every aspect of the Trinity has a part, listen to Foundation #4.

“(F-1.04) Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Point 1: Continuity and Change. The presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around the marks of the true Church.” You remember from two weeks ago, I hope. That we believe the marks of the true Church are the unity of the Church in Christ, the holiness of the Church as set apart, the catholicity or universality of the Church, and the a-pos-to-lic-ity of the Church: our being sent out on a mission into the world. So, “the presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around (these) marks of the true Church. It is in all things subject to the Lord of the Church. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks (as Romans 12 reads) “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Point 2: Ecumenicity: The presbyterian system of government in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is established in light of Scripture but is not regarded as essential for the existence of the Christian Church nor required of all Christians. Point 3: Unity in Diversity: (Galatians 3 reads) “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution. Point 4: Openness: In Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, the Church seeks a new openness to God’s mission in the world. In Christ, the triune God tends the least among us, suffers the curse of human sinfulness, raises up a new humanity, and promises a new future for all creation. In Christ, Church members share with all humanity the realities of creatureliness, sinfulness, brokenness, and suffering, as well as the future toward which God is drawing (us). The mission of God pertains not only to the Church but also to people everywhere and to all creation. As (we) participate in God’s mission, (we,) the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) seek: a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work; a new openness in (our) own membership, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit, as a visible sign of the new humanity; a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; and a new openness to God’s continuing reformation of the Church ecumenical, that (we) might be more effective in (our) mission.” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017; F-1.04).

If you’ve been Presbyterian for any length of time, perhaps Foundation #4 seems a bit shocking. Openness???!!! To the Holy Spirit???!!! Classically these have NOT been the things for which Presbyterians have been known. Back in Divinity School, which was an ecumenical setting, all my friends used to chide me that as a Presbyterian I was one of the FROZEN CHOSEN! And frozen had nothing to do with being from Wisconsin. For years, we Presbyterians have been known in lots of church circles as being very serious, stodgy, head-driven types who emotionally are frozen; stuck in our intricate theologies. Cold: not on fire like say rowdy Pentecostals who worship full of great zip and zest. And, even though Presbyterian’s big contributions to the Christian effort are fabulous confessional statements and carefully-constructed systematic theologies, we have not been known for elaborate doctrines of the Spirit. We’ve been even more overlooked when it comes to being a people ready to be blown where God wills by the winds of the Holy Spirit. Our historic reputation is more than unfortunate as one of the hallmarks of our Reformed Theological Faith – the basis of what Presbyterians always have believed is: “Ecclesia reformata, simper reformanda” – “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order, F-2.02). . . . Presbyterian Foundation #4: Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit challenges us to trust in a living God. We are asked to put all of our faith, all of our hope, all of our assurance in a God STILL at work in the world. A God ready to transform us as we look to a Lord and Savior who: “goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him” (F-1.0401).

If you ask me, this foundation is HARDWORK! At least it is for many of us. Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit implies a few things. First: it implies that we just might not be there quite yet. Incomplete. Imperfect. Unfinished. Who of us wants to be open to that?! Aren’t we always in a race in this society to be done? At the end – like those who have to peek to see how a good book ends instead of sitting back to enjoy how it all will unfold. . . . Some of us have lived a long time – a very long time. The Church has been around for a much longer time! And don’t you just feel weary some days? Haven’t we been open long enough? Haven’t we tried long enough? Must we continuously exist in this place of not quite yet being finished? . . . Though something in us just might want to cruise-control down the road on auto pilot. Being as we know. Doing as we’ve always done. Not having to face the grief that can come over that which ends before something new grows. One commentator has written that “if you’re a part of a vibrant congregation, (then) your church is in a constant state of transition.” And this is a good, welcomed thing! (Jan Edmiston, achurchforstarvingartists.com, “Rethinking Church Staffs,” 3 Sept. 2015). Openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit means a humble life of constant listening. Constant self-examination. Continual learning. Endless letting go. Openness can be really hard work!

And it’s not just about extra effort; this call to openness. It can be more than a little scary too! . . . You may know already that I grew up in the woods along Lake Michigan. In the winter when I was a child, my sister and I loved to haul out ice skates, tromp back through the snow, and see if the ice on the swamp was ready. I still can remember that old red coat of mine and the thick woolly socks. Gliding free over the ice was such a delight! It felt so amazing! Have you ever done it? The speed, the grace, the freedom of flying from one spot to the next way faster than any of us ever could walk. But you know what? Before those fabulous moments, I fell down – a lot! It was the risk I had to take if I wanted to skate. An older sister of mine once fell so hard she broke her leg – badly! Fortunately, I only bruised my knees a lot. . . . You know how when you’re just starting out – learning something new: be it ice skating, or driving a car, or maybe even trying to figure out how to relate to someone else in a little healthier way? Risk always is involved. We’re going to fall every now and again. But as the old saying goes: “Success consists of getting back up once more than we fall down.” Dust ourselves off and try again. No need to fear. Just accept that try and try again is a part of the process. . . . Being open to something new might scare us right out of our minds! But maybe that’s what God intends as a first step in having our minds transformed – renewed that we “may discern what is the will of God” in this situation and that instance and the next opportunity too (Rom. 12:2).

It’s exactly why we need to be open to the Holy Spirit – the wisdom that guides us into God’s desired future. . . . One commentator has written: “If a free flow of air is needed to make a fire, likewise a free flow of the Spirit is needed to form a church with a ‘burning center and porous borders.’” The commentator continues: “Without the Spirit, we will not only have conformist churches, we also will have churches suffering from respiratory failures. If churches are not inspired by the Spirit, then eventually they will expire” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Eleazar S. Fernandez, p. 378). And so: Come, Holy Spirit! Come and fill this place! Come and fill us with your surprising power! Come and lead us where God would have us go! . . . Remembering that it’s about continuity – staying in line with what has gone before – AND, as Foundation #4, point 1 states: CHANGE – being drawn deeper “into the sovereign activity of the triune God” . . . through reform, through fresh direction, through following Jesus Christ who “goes ahead of us.” He’s our leader not only so we know which way to go. He’s our leader because the living God sends him before us still to make a way for us to walk too. It’s as if Christ says: “this is the path. Walk on it!” We’ll be sustained by the Spirit. We’ll be given the courage needed. We’ll find ourselves standing one foot in line with the past and the other stepping forward to what yet will be.

This is our sure footing. Our foundation: God’s mission. With Jesus Christ as our Head, the Church called and continually open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for this solid ground upon which the Church of Jesus Christ forever shall stand!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

“With the Passion of God”

A Sermon for 30 August 2015

Once in the three year cycle of the lectionary, we’re taken into the Song of Solomon. Today happens to be that day. So listen to a reading from Song of Solomon 2:8-17, 8:6-7. Listen for God’s word to us.

“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. My beloved speaks and says to me: “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. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.” My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.”

And from chapter 8: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

What is your favorite love song? Every generation has them, right? Back in the day was it: “You must remember this: a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply. As time goes by” (As Time Goes By, by Frank Sinatra). And what about: “I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you and I think to myself what a wonderful world” (Wonderful World, by Louis Armstrong). In my generation, lots of us loved that one about star-crossed lovers from two different worlds. Even if they couldn’t be together, she crooned: “And I will always love you!” (I will Always Love You, Whitney Houston). Maybe you have another favorite – one reserved for you and your sweetie– which we’d sure love to hear if you want to hum a few bars of it after the service.

What about love songs for God. Isn’t it one of the reasons so many of us love Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound? It’s a rousing song of our love, our deep appreciation, our absolute devotion to God – the One of grace who doesn’t have to be so dedicated to us, but is. What about What Wondrous Love is This, O my soul, O my soul? The haunting, Lenten tune can strike a chord that resonates all the way to the deepest place in our hearts. More Love to Thee, O Christ is another one and we’re going to sing it at the close of this service. “Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee. This is my earnest plea: more love, O Christ, to Thee. More love to Thee, more love to Thee!” It can’t get any closer to a swooning love song than that. I think it’s safe to say that as long as one shred of love remains in a human heart, we’re going to find a song to sing about it – or if you think you can’t sing, then at least listen to the music and maybe even sway along.

It’s part of the beauty of the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs as the book of the bible often is called. This little eight-chapter book squeezed in between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah gets minimal respect. You may have never before heard a sermon on it. If you weren’t in Comprehensive Bible Study these past two years, then chances are pretty high that most of you haven’t read it for yourself. The Song of Songs has been proclaimed the most secular book of the bible. After all, God is nowhere referenced in it. There’s not even mention of the standard holy-stuff like praying, or fasting, or observing religious celebrations. There’s not one lick of typical God-infused scripture here. Yet it shows up in our cherished, leather-bond, good books nonetheless. Whether we like it or not. Whether we can make much sense of it or not. Right there it is wedged between wisdom and the prophets.

It’s ancient Israel’s kind of love song. Actually, it’s a collection of beautiful love songs – passionate descriptions of love and two lovers’ visions of one another. And it just so happens to be the songs of two whose love was considered unlikely – if not unacceptable in their time. One mate is believed to be Solomon, the great wise king of the Israelites, famed son of King David. Though some scholars believe it’s just attributed to him as a way to make it an acceptable inclusion in Holy Scripture. The other lover seems to be an unexpected choice – which she herself declares in chapter 1:5-6: “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem … do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” She’s not like all the others her beloved could have chosen. She is dark from being forced to do manual labor beneath the hot sun. She’s someone no one would consider fit for a king! The oldest love story out there, right? Whether it’s a class or an ethnicity issue, we can’t be sure. Nor do we know what great wrong caused the anger of her mother’s sons to burn against her – perhaps she was born by one other than their father. Perhaps they caught their sister once before sneaking off. History has not left us the code to unlock the mystery. But we do learn throughout this love song that the two lovers had to fight for their right to love. Because two people from such differing backgrounds being together? Well, it was unheard of! The sneers of Jerusalem’s daughters lurk around every corner. The lovers have to sneak off to the fields in order to be together, hastily seeing one another between this duty and that. Never being able openly to display their love without being despised. Perhaps it all made their love grow even stronger. Maybe their poetry became the place to passionately declare their right to love whomever, no matter what prevailing cultural norms exist. Maybe their writing is their insistence on loving whomever their heart desires.

And it’s pretty steamy! The language is surprisingly sensual – more like one of those Harlequin Romance novels than ancient Holy text. Listen. Here’s how the book begins: “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; . . . draw me after you, let us make haste” (1:2-4a). And chapter 4:9-10: “You have ravished my heart, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love . . . how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.” And then there’s 5:1 and following: “’Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’” She responds: “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.” And then, of course, these Songs contain my favorite parts – the lovers’ descriptions of one another. Here’s what Romeo declares to Juliet: “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat . . . your two breasts are like two fawns, your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon, . . . your nose is like a tower of Lebanon” (7:2-4) WHATEVER??!!! It sounds like he’s calling her some sort of big-nosed, giraffe-necked, pot-bellied freak with dear for a chest! CLEARLY this poetic beauty is lost on our modern imaginations. Regardless, we might be boggled to find such erotic language in the Scriptures. After all, we’re good, God-fearing Presbyterians – Christians like most others who may push the lines a bit but can’t quite tolerate such passion in our Scripture – let alone in our worship!

So what’s the deal? What’s the Song of Solomon doing in Scripture and how in the world did it EVER make it into the lectionary – even if only for one week in the three year cycle? Well, a lot – a lot of good that is. And not just as an allegory of the love between God and the soul or Christ and the Church as some have considered the Song of Solomon over the years. But as a celebration of human love – a helpful corrective for us because think about it: what messages have made their way down through history about passion? It’s something to stay away from, right? Something to be feared! Passion lies in the realm of uncontrollable emotion. Passion can cause us to do crazy things – spontaneous things – out of control actions. . . . I once heard of a rather stoic man who weekly attended worship. It always was the same. He sang a few hymns, tried to stay awake during the pastor’s sermon, and sat through the agonizingly long prayers. Until one Sunday. One Sunday something unexplainable happened. A guest group of teenagers joined them for worship. It was a team of young African-American women who were being trained in their church to dance joyously during the offering while the young men of the church played African drums. When the teens began, the man found himself powerfully moved from the inside out. Something got into him and before he knew it, he too was up dancing among the troop around the communion table. This kind of thing never before had happened in that church or to that man; but that day, something within moved. The next thing everyone knew was that man was like old King David dancing joyously before the Lord. Passion struck. His love for God burst forth in physical form. And he danced! He danced in joy before the LORD! . . . It probably would make most of us a bit squeamish if one of us jumped up during the offertory in a minute. But, who would stop the Spirit of God from moving in us as it will?

Passion. We might think it has no place in proper Christian churches. Then up comes a reading from the sacred writing of Song of Solomon and suddenly all bearings are lost. Long ago some thought the best thing to do was get rid of it. Keep passion safely locked outside the sacred, sanctuary doors. This little book nearly got booted out of the bible in the past. Now it’s there and we simply ignore it. And what a tumble we’ve taken since! Because, as one commentator reminds, “to be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self.” Love moves us into the realm where human and divine can merge – where we can get a good education in loving and being loved (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4; Julia M. O’Brien, p. 5). Indeed it is one of God’s greatest gifts to us – to open ourselves to the mystery of that which moves in us. . . . And if for another human being in this world, then how much more for the Holy One, who has gone to great depths for us? Isn’t it time we fervently sing our love songs to the One who got more than a bit passionate in loving an entire creation? Getting physical, as God took on human flesh to walk among us, fiercely loving – even to the end – for our welfare. . . . Haven’t we definitively been shown in Christ that love indeed is stronger than death? That passion is fiercer than the grave?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love with the passion of God, the One who passionately loves us every day and at last, beyond the grave.

In the name of that Life-giving Father, that Life-redeeming Son, and that Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

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