A Sermon: God, Our Lover

I preached this sermon at my home parish, Grace in the Desert Episcopal Church, Las Vegas, NV, on Sunday, September 2nd, 2018. The lectionary reading used is Song of Solomon 2:8-13. I offer it to you and to the heart of the God who loves and desires each of us.

“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

The Song of Solomon, a piece of which we encountered in today’s readings, has a rather controversial history in the Christian tradition. It is, on its face, an exquisite poem about the ecstatic love between a man and a woman—one that comes out of a long poetic tradition in the cultures of ancient Israel and the near east. It’s an unabashed expression of longing and desire between two people, and its heightened sentiments might sound familiar to those of us who have experienced the soul-stirring rush of romantic attraction.

At various points in the history of our faith, the Song of Solomon has also been reinterpreted as a metaphor of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. The thought for some, I suppose, was that such a frank expression of bodily desire did not align with the sanctity and moral discipline of the Christian ethos, and so the Song was instead taught and understood as coded language that communicates God’s pure and holy desire for creation; the consummation of a bond between two lovers became an analogy for the Church’s mystical union with Jesus Christ.

So what do we do with this text, then? Do we stick with those Biblical scholars who read it as an ancient Israelite love poem, a beautiful erotic relic? Or do we cordon it off as a spiritualized metaphor, one that conveys a sanitized interpretation of Jesus’s bond with his Church?  Or is there something else here for us?

To answer this question, I want to tell you a brief personal story. Last year I was meeting with my spiritual director, a Franciscan friar, and we were talking about prayer—specifically, my prayer life while at seminary. I was telling him about the various ways that I was trying to relate to God, and how on some level I was more comfortable praying and talking to God the Father rather than directly to Jesus. I felt, quite honestly, like I didn’t know how to relate to Jesus. As a teacher or guru figure? An older brother? A King? (too intimidating) A close friend? (too familiar) As someone who is a disciple of Jesus, as someone who has pledged myself to serving this very personal God who is Son as much as Father and Spirit, I was troubled by my struggle to connect on an emotional level with Jesus, and not just a theoretical one.

And then my spiritual director said something surprising that I will never forget. He said, “why don’t you relate to Jesus as the one who is in love with you?”

I had two immediate reactions. First: my brain’s knee-jerk response: “No way! Jesus is God incarnate. I can’t think of God in the same way I would someone I am in love with. That kind of romantic love is only for human beings.”

And the other reaction, from a much deeper place in my heart: a door opening. The feeling of an unspoken, unrecognized truth suddenly brought to light: our God was also, somehow, human. Our God, in Jesus, had a heart and body like mine. And with this heart, God might not simply love me in a paternalistic way, or with a generic, impassive offering of good-will, but that God could be IN LOVE with me. That God could be IN LOVE with all of us.

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

The Song of Solomon clues us in to something—that desire, that romantic love, as much as any other form of love, is a doorway to understanding the ways in which God relates to us. And that’s not in the detached, polite manner  of interaction that you might offer an acquaintance on the street. No. God loves us passionately, ardently, with a fury and a longing. God is the burning bush in the desert that calls out to us and burns and burns and burns and yet is never consumed.

And it’s with this insight that we come to understand that the romantic bond between two people—straight people, gay people, young lovers, or lifelong partners— this bond is bound up in the outpouring of divine love that permeates creation. It is our nature, it is a good thing, to long for each other, to yearn for the union of our body with another, because God longs for us in the very same way. It is this longing that erupted in the Incarnation, the Passion, and that brought forth the Resurrection. In the human heart, the divine heart, the beating and burning sacred heart of Jesus, God has not only sanctified our human love and desire—He has experienced it, as a human being, firsthand, coursing through Him.

This truth about the heart of God is what allowed the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, writing down heavenly visions in her monastic cell, to refer variously to Jesus as father, as mother, as brother, and as husband—the One Who fulfills every need, Who encapsulates every type of love we have been blessed to receive in this life, and every type of love for which we are still longing to find.

This truth about the passion of God is what St. Clare of Assisi was referring to when she wrote, of Christ: “Draw me after you! We will run in the fragrance of your perfumes, O heavenly spouse! I will run and not tire.”

This is a love that enfolds us, no matter our gender, no matter our sexuality, or our relationship status. Christ looks upon us and loves us, He sees our longing to be understood, to be admired, to be held, and He says:

I’m here. I’ve always been here. I love you. I am in love with you, every part of you. Why else would I have endured the folly and suffering of the cross, if not for that burning love? Why else would I show up here at this altar, week after week, to kiss your lips with bread and wine, if not for an all-consuming desire to be one with you?

And the voice of the poet, who is us, sings in response,

“Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.”

“Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

The Song of Solomon, like all of Holy Scripture, is an invitation to love and be loved, in body as well as heart and soul. Those who would read the text as “only” an erotic poem AND those who would read it as “only” a spiritual metaphor are actually making the same mistake: they are constructing a false boundary between our bodily experience of human love and that of the divine love we participate in through Christ. The two are intertwined, and in our humble passions we find a reflection of the One Consummate Lover of all creation—the God we know in Christ, who calls out to us, wooing us, consoling us, as only a lover can do.

The only question that remains, then, is whether we will respond to the invitation to “arise and come away“. If your beloved calls to you, will you go running and cast yourself into their embrace?  Will you venture out with them, into that landscape of abundant possibility where “the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom”?

I pray that each of us will take such a chance. I pray that we will respond with the same intensity of feeling that Jesus offers us, for it is He who will always be the Supreme Love of our lives. I pray for a world blessed by the consummation of our desire for God and for each other. I pray that such a world will give way to a new love poem, one that never ends. Its title will be the Song of the Kingdom of God.

“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.”

Advertisements

The Joy of Normality

Temperamental spring is flirting with the landscape in Mirfield. In the past two weeks we’ve had snow blanketing the hillsides, unannounced rainstorms that drenched me on the way to morning prayer, and profusions of purple crocuses and yellow daffodils carpeting the parish churchyards. A bit like life itself, the weather in England is unpredictable, occasionally frustrating, and always beautiful.

Having been here almost two months (!) I’ve settled into a rhythm of prayer, study, meals, and periodic frivolity that feels more like a new home than like a “trip”. Given how disoriented and adrift I felt in the first couple of weeks, this change in itself feels like a miraculous revelation. It makes me realize how infrequently I am grateful for normality in my daily life back in California: always hungry for what is next, not for what simply is.

There was a piece I read long ago by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that referred to this type of everyday gratitude as “the joy of no toothache.” In other words, it’s usually when we are in some type of acute pain that we finally recognize the joy that was already present in the pain-free status quo. Now that the discomforts of adjusting to life in Mirfield have mostly subsided, I am determined to relish the quiet happiness of simply being here.

But how to hold onto that sense of gratitude? For me, in this place, it has come about through a burgeoning sense of prayerful discipline. I am realizing more and more how the constancy of the Daily Offices (morning prayer, Eucharist, evening prayer, etc.) keeps me attentive to God and to the preciousness of the day at hand. Compared to my life back in the US, when I often let prayer become sidelined by academic anxieties, personal angst, and (let’s be honest) a lot of social media-driven idleness, now the rigor and structure of prayer is the framework upon which I build each day. I don’t always *want* to go and pray the Offices, but I must, and in maintaining that commitment, I find small but perceptible shifts in my heart, an accumulation of movements that are reorienting me towards the Divine presence in moments I might otherwise have missed it.

Robert Browning writes of this type of attentiveness in “Pippa’s Song”:

The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!

 

The saints often express similar feelings about the miracle of the commonplace (think of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun). It is a mistake, I think, to sentimentalize or trivialize these types of observations. Deep satisfaction and delight in the everyday is not the same as naivety, nor is it complacency. To marvel at the poignancy of God’s abiding in the present does not preclude us from clear-eyed hope, from the work of reconciliation, or from the pursuit of justice; instead, it grounds us in pursuing those aims out of love, rather than fear and stridency.

Of all the things I am discovering at Mirfield—the joys of community, the need to take a more holistic view of priestly formation—one of the simplest and best is this experience of inhabiting the day prayerfully, non-anxiously, without a lot of worry about the future. This hasn’t come easily, but it is a change I have experienced quite dramatically in the past few weeks. I told someone recently that there is a bright line around my time here; beyond June 1st I am unsure of what life will hold, and I am suddenly, truly all right with that. If “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) then I am experiencing faith anew here.

So, if I could offer any bit of advice for the perpetually stressed, among whom I have counted myself for many years, I would say this: forget dramatic transformations, and give yourself over to a gentle discipline of prayer. Focus less on an idealized, perfect end result, which is forever beyond our grasp anyway, and find something simple and immediate that will ground you in this day which God has made for us. It might be the Daily Offices, if you are Episcopalian/Anglican, or it might be something else. If you are already engaging in a practice along these lines, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Please know that in my daily prayers I am constantly lifting up your names. It is a great consolation to think of all the love that has permeated my life thus far, and I can only hope to give some of it back to God, through my relationships with you and through the worship that I offer up each day.

Peace, dear friends. You are in my heart always.

Fire or Fire

This morning I woke up far earlier than I needed to after a night of troubled sleep. In one of those “God, give me a message” moments, I grabbed a book of poetry from my desk and opened it by chance to this:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words, part of “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, inhabited the dark room with me like a corporeal presence. I have been struggling mightily with things I’ve lost and left behind and the fear of other things I might yet lose. The gratitude that I feel for this three-year seminary journey has often been tinged with sadness, and there have been moments when it all seems bleak and futile. The “flame of incandescent terror” is exactly what answering the call to priesthood has sometimes been for me: a burning away of old comforts and the scorching of my blithe naiveté about what priestly formation would entail, all carried down on the wings of a fearsome Love that feels more like grief. I think that anyone who seeks to follow God, no matter their path or vocation, has at some point felt the sting of what Bonhoeffer calls the cost of discipleship. Who we were must be relinquished for who God asks us to become. The fire of the Spirit is not for the faint of heart, and it demands everything we have to give.

It seems impossible sometimes. But what is the alternative? If Eliot is right, and we must choose to either be burned on the liberating pyre of faith or on the suffocating pyre of our own hardened hearts, then the choices are not in fact equal. Any fear I might feel about following Christ is still preferable to a life of deadening self-interest, and so I continue to turn my face toward the flames of God–however tentatively–and they continue to sting my eyes with their heat.

But how does one make a life of this? How do I let myself be kindled by God’s Love rather than fall back on the same old habits and neuroses that have gotten me by in life thus far? How to die to my old self and yet recognize that I remain a person who wants to be carefree, to laugh, to not trudge along in dreary self-importance? How can I be fully myself–complicated, vulnerable, earthy, needy–in a world (and even a church culture) that sometimes corrals people into a stultifying role that values piety and assurance more than raw presence?

These are some of the questions I’ve brought to Mirfield. I don’t know that they can be answered. But if “Love is the unfamiliar name,” I want to learn how to speak it with greater confidence. I want to adopt it as my own. Even if it burns, as it does, as I know it will.

God, give me the courage to be consumed by you.