This morning's sermon I have preached before. I defend myself with some words from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy:
“A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”To get you in the mood for Song of Songs,
here's Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me"
Sermon, Sunday October 24, 2010
by Katie Mulligan
Scripture Readings: Song of Songs 2:8-14 and Matthew 11:28-30
So, a love poem and a few words from Jesus. Our theme this morning is love and desire, passion, and finding peace in the arms of a beloved other. I wish I could tell you that today’s texts come from the lectionary, that I am not responsible for their selection, for to speak of love and desire is always risky. In our Prayer of Confession this morning we prayed these words: “Almighty and merciful God, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws.” It may be that we too often follow the devices and desires of our own hearts, but I wonder sometimes if we Presbyterians might be more guilty of following our rational heads too much. So I must admit that I chose these texts this morning, for in the midst of a hard and busy schedule, I am longing for the playfulness of falling in love.
The Song of Solomon is also known as the Song of Songs, or the Canticle of Canticles. It is spoken of in this way as THE song of songs, as in the best of the songs, because the poem is about two lovers who are magnificent in every way. Tradition holds that the song was written by Solomon because his name appears once in the text. It is a difficult text to date, however, and it was fairly common to ascribe literature to Solomon or David or another prominent figure. Some scholars believe that the song was written by a woman. Regardless of who wrote the song, perhaps what is remarkable is that it has been preserved as scripture in our Bibles. The Song of Songs is eight chapters of scripture that speak frankly of passionate longing for another person. It begins with the woman calling out for her beloved. She desires to meet with him, and he tells her where she can find him, in the pastures at noon. They flatter each other playfully and sweetly, with tender words of love and adoration. She claims to be a rose, a lily; to her friends, the daughters of Jerusalem, she tells how wonderful is her companion. And then she says, “The voice of my beloved! Look, here he comes.”
Do you remember how it feels to be in love like that? Close your eyes for a moment and conjure the image of somebody you have loved. Perhaps it is the person sitting next to you in the pew. Perhaps it is somebody long gone from your life. Perhaps your beloved is no longer living. Perhaps there is a hole in your heart where he or she resided. Do you remember how you longed to be with that person? The thought of your beloved brings a smile to your face, causes your breath to catch, changes the way you see the world. The woman in the song says, “O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!” Our human hearts hold so much longing for love, don’t they? The sound of a beloved’s voice is unmistakable, even across a crowded room, their laughter fills our heart. When we are madly in love, we know the way our beloved walks; from a distance we can pick them out with our eyes. As a teenager I fell madly in love with a young man who met me at my bus stop to walk me home one day. I was not expecting him, but every day after that I looked for him. Years later I rode that same bus to my parents’ home, and even though he’d been gone from my life for a long time, when I stepped off the bus, I half expected him to be there. The people we love passionately leave a deep imprint upon our souls.
The woman tells to the daughters of Jerusalem the words of her beloved. “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...Arise my love, my fair one, and come away...let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” Can you imagine such beautiful words? Who would you call to tell about your beloved? A former youth group student called me out of the blue a while ago. It had been some time since I had heard from him, so when I heard his excited voice on my cell phone say, “Katie, guess what?” I said, “You’re getting married!” “How did you know?” he asked. In the background I could hear his fiancé squealing with joy as she too called everybody on her phone list to tell them the good news. Three thousand miles away, their joy bounced off a satellite over cellular phone networks. Romantic, passionate love is a powerful emotion.
And so the song goes for six more chapters. The lovers meet, separate, meet again. They whisper sweet words of love, appreciation for the other’s physical beauty. They call to one another, they play, they love.
If you are a grown up, you have probably already figured out that romantic, passionate love, for all its power and beauty, does not always end sweetly. The Song of Songs is a vignette, a sneak peek into the romance of two lovers. Real life gets in the way of such things. There are children and dishes and laundry and bills, the IRS, the boss, homework, and tragic endings. Unrealistic expectations have killed more than one marriage or relationship. It is tempting to give up on the kind of love written about in this song, but there’s something there that’s hard to give up, isn’t there?
From the very beginning the Song of Songs has been interpreted in different ways. For some it is a love poem between two lovers and that is that. But for those of us in the church, those of us with a religious bent, the Song of Songs carries additional meaning. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible says, “Both Jewish and Christian traditions agree that the Song of Songs mirrors the love relationship between God and people.” An ancient Christian theologian, Origen, who lived in the second and third centuries, believed that the Song of Songs was written as an allegory (or metaphor) for the relationship between God and the Church. For although God is never directly named in the Song, the Song is, after all, included in our canon of Holy Scripture. Origen says, “If these words are not to be spiritually understood, are they not mere tales? If they contain no hidden mystery, are they not unworthy of God?” According to Origen (and many other theologians over the ages) the man of the song was God and the woman was the Church. It is hard to imagine reading the Song of Songs only as a metaphor of God’s love for the Church. The very human love of the man and woman in the poem fairly leaps off the page. Yet Origen is right—this love poem is included in a book of Holy Scripture. This song of all songs has been preserved for us in our Bibles. As we turn to the gospel of Matthew, keep in mind the memory of your beloved.
Our second text comes at the end of chapter 11 in Matthew. Jesus has been teaching his disciples, and he has been teaching them many hard things. In chapter 10, Jesus said things like, “You received without payment; give without payment.” In other words, being a disciple meant not drawing a salary. Jesus said to his disciples, “Brother will betray brother to death...you will be hated by all because of my name.” And on it goes in chapter 10, difficult teaching after difficult teaching. In chapter 11 we learn that Jesus’ cousin, John, is imprisoned for his religious teachings in the wilderness, and Jesus reproaches the cities where he had done most of his miracles, because even after he performed deeds of power, the people of those cities did not repent and believe. Perhaps in exasperation, Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” It seems that only children and fools follow after this Jesus.
And then, suddenly, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Immediately following our text this morning, chapter 12 picks up with the Pharisees attacking Jesus for allowing his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals a man, also on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees begin to plot to destroy Jesus. Can it be that Jesus was also weary? Between verse after verse of exhausting teaching, healing, and defending against those who sought to destroy him, Jesus offered rest to the souls of those who would come to him. It is as if Jesus held out his hand and said to his followers, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away...let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” These are a lover’s words, surely. Come to me. Arise my love.
Do you remember your beloved? Do you remember what it is like to be in the presence of your beloved? To hear your beloved’s voice, to behold the face of your beloved? There are many ways to understand or experience this mysterious God of ours. I am not suggesting romantic love is the only way to know God. But perhaps we might glimpse, if only imperfectly, what it is like to be loved by God through the eyes of our beloved. When we are head over heels in love, the whole world is different, isn’t it? Our bodies, our minds, our souls, long to be with that other. When we are apart, it is painful. Perhaps there is something of that experience that correlates to our love for God and God’s love for us. Do we not long to be loved like that, to love like that?
Do you remember what it’s like to open your mail and find a love poem? Or the thrill of sending such a poem, imagining the delight on your loved one’s face? A sonnet from Pablo Neruda, perhaps:
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,I once knew a couple passionately in love. They were a youngish couple, who had been married for a few years, and who were utterly devoted to each other. Ten years later, a few kids and a mortgage, they are still utterly devoted to each other. Often the woman spoke to students about experiencing God’s love in her life. In particular, she spoke about the blessing of her husband's love for her. She told the story of how one night she was terribly upset. Crying, unable to sleep, she lay in bed with her tears soaking into her pillow. He took her into his arms and held her. He prayed out loud over her body and gently stroked her hair until she fell asleep in his arms. When she told the story, the room was utterly silent. From all of us, adult and student alike, came an overwhelming sense of longing. A longing to experience that kind of love, to give and receive that kind of tender care to another.
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
Her husband is like me, preferring to work late into the night. This meant that he was often sleepy at retreats and meetings. Sometimes he would doze off mid-discussion. One weekend we asked the students to lie down on the floor for a guided meditation. We imagined ourselves as meeting up with Jesus in a place of safety and comfort. We asked the students to go off on their own for a half our to pray, to spend 30 minutes talking with Jesus. My friend got on the floor with the students, put his head down, and promptly fell asleep. Later I teased him about falling asleep on God; we laughed and decided he was just resting in the arms of Jesus.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We have in the Song of Songs a short interlude of two lovers head over heels in love. My friend told the story of one night in her marriage. And another time her husband rested in the arms of our Savior for an afternoon. Jesus called sweetly to us in three short verses. The rest of it all is a mess, isn’t it? Love dies or we kill it out of fear. There are demands on all sides for our time and attention. In the midst of the complications of life we can become so weary and so fearful that we can no longer hear the voice of our Beloved calling out to us.
But we have our Holy Scriptures. And here we are, gathered together to worship in church. Let us reach out to one another in love, tenderly and sweetly. In our Prayer of Confession this morning we did indeed confess that we follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. But we also confessed that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done. With abandon and joy, let us fall in love again with each other, with the world, with Jesus. For Christ loved us passionately and without reservation. This indeed, is the good news of the gospel. Let us throw caution to the winds, and open our hearts to God and God’s creation. Let us lay down our burdens and rest in the arms of Jesus. Through the words of the poet, through the words of your beloved, know that you are passionately and joyously loved by God.
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away...let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”