Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Work IS Love

I preached this morning at the Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church, with gratitude to the Rev. Dr. Nina Reeder for the invitation. LRPC is one of the four churches where I serve as youth pastor, and they are the host church for the Love of God (L.O.G.) retreat program in New Jersey.

I have preached this sermon a time or two before. It's one of my favorites. I was just about to start re-working it this morning, when I was rudely interrupted by life. If you have read this sermon before, go on through. The second half is quite different.

Sunday, September 2, 2012
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

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 fiancĂ© 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?

Oh yes, this is what I was thinking about at 6:30am, floating along with my coffee on a sea of erotic, passionate love, idly wondering if I should just use this part of the sermon or make substantial changes. Smiling sweetly as I thought of old lovers, permission granted by the Song to think of the beginnings of things when love is full of possibility and longing and not yet fraught with daily reality and disillusionment, I was startled by the ring of my phone.

Who calls me at 6:30 on Sunday morning? Nobody, that's who. With trepidation, I answered. It was my neighbor. "Come outside," he said, "I want to show you something." So I did. And there I saw that somebody had spray painted my car with obscenities and painted over the headlights and taillights. 

It was like a record scratch, moving from sweet thoughts of young love. I looked at my neighbor in surprise and said, "I have to preach about love at 10:00." He just shook his head. We called the police to make a report.

As soon as I hung up with the dispatcher, I did what any rational person would do and facebooked it. And tweeted it. I was vindicated by tweets and comments offering prayers and support. And still at 10:00 I needed to preach about love. How was I going to do that?

I got more coffee.

My mind churned over too many emotions. It felt so personal, these words painted on my car. I wasn't sure how well the paint would come off (it's mostly gone now, but the car won't ever be the same). It brought to mind old traumas. Like the time when Xxxx Xxxxx put mothballs in my backpack in 7th grade, and I walked around for 2 weeks not knowing why my backpack stank. Or when an ex-boyfriend stole my mailbox. Or someone painted obscenities on my 9th grade locker. The prank calls. It reminded me of far more serious violations of my body and spirit. It took some effort to push all those memories back into their proper places and acknowledge that this was just spraypaint on a car, here and now.

I scrubbed off the first letters of the words so the young children wouldn't ask questions.

One of my facebook friends wrote, "Katie, people who do things like that are pusillanimous cowards who don't have the courage to face their own fears. May God forgive them, but not immediately."

I am very fond of an Irish blessing that goes like this:
May those who love us, love us.
And those that don't love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if he doesn't turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we'll know them by their limping.
I told the police this morning tthat I believe in restorative justice. If they find out who vandalized all these cars last night, they can let me know. I work for four churches. I know so many older folks in need of help around the house that our vandals can do their service that way, pulling weeds and cleaning toilets for Ms. Roberta or Mr. Juan. I took a few minutes to enjoy the image. And then let it go, because I still had to preach about love, and there wasn't much time left.

I am convinced that we are called to a Song of Songs love for humanity even and especially when everything goes wrong. I am convinced of this, even though anger surged through my heart today. This is the work that James writes of in our passage this morning:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
How do we love people who treat us badly? How do we love in the face of anger, disappointment, and fear? How do we stay open to the world--stay open to love--when things happen that make us want to lock the doors and windows and never come out? And yet that is the work we are called to--to love even in the midst of difficulty. We are called to remain open to love, to the world, to other people, even when other people violate our trust. I'm doing the best I can, but I sure don't know how to do this work properly. How do I stay in Song of Songs love for humanity when humanity comes along and spray paints nasty words on my van?

The last sentence of our James passage this morning reads, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." I have heard this sentence used to justify a withdrawal from the world, but I think it means we meet the world in all of its complexity and difficulty and remain unstained. Unstained as in holding steady, not letting the hurts and pains and sorrow take away our ability to meet the world with the open arms of a young, passionate lover.

This week I posted a blog entry by Sarah Eyre called, "The First Time My Daughter Told Me She Hated Me, I Bought Her a Cake." It's a marvelous story about the day her daughter, at age 15, said, "I hate you!" for the first time. In a heated discussion over a boy, the mother gave some unwelcomed advice, and the daughter yelled her terrible words and ran to a friend's house. Hours later, the father fetched the daughter, who spent the rest of the day hiding in her room.

The mother grieved and then decided to treat this as any other developmental milestone.
Going to bed that night, I decided I wanted to make certain that my daughter knew that no matter what happened between us -- no matter what she said -- that our relationship could not be so easily shattered. I wanted it clearly stated that nothing as small as an argument and some heated words -- even angry words like, “I hate you” -- could damage us.
So she bought her daughter a cake that said, "I Hate You." It became known as Hate Cake Day. The cake brought laughter and restored relationship. It didn't erase the words or the hurt they caused, but through that hurt the mother focused on what was most important: not even nasty words could shatter their relationship. The daughter was loved regardless, despite, because, without reserve.

The mother was unstained by harsh words. She remained open to love when most of us would have crumbled in pain. This, then, is the work we are called to. The work is love.


  1. I just wrote a comment, hit preview, and it was gone. Oh well, here goes again. : )
    I love your sermon. I plan to share and hope many read it. Your are wise beyond your years. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences - they really make my days!

  2. Thanks, Katie. . . I needed to hear your words of wisdom. I still have trouble loving those that don't love me back!

  3. beautiful. way to turn it around. I am so sorry for what happened.

    And I love the "I hate you" cake story. Cupcakes, maybe?


  4. Katie,
    Nice job under pressure of weaving together literary and experiential strands of text.



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