Falling in Love With God

Lectionary Passage: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

To read this passage online, go to http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Song+of+Songs+2:8-13&vnum=yes&version=nrsv

Do you love God?  Sure you do!  That’s the whole point, right?  But here’s perhaps a harder (or at least a weirder) question:  Are you in IN love with God?  After all, being “in love” seems to be something so profoundly human, so earthy, so “fleshy”, so intimate, so private.  It’s more than just loving.  It’s more than just being together.  It’s almost a completion of who you are called to be, an entirely different way of being.  It really is more about being one than being two that love.  We proper Western Protestants understand loving God (and, certainly, pleasing God).  But do we let ourselves fall, with utter abandon, into love with God?    The Old Testament passage from this week’s Lectionary selections is from the wisdom writing known in Hebrew as the Song of Songs.  It’s not the usual fare for our lectionary.  I mean, it borders on what is sometimes characterized as almost erotic imagery and it doesn’t even mention God.  So, as you can imagine, there were lots of debates about whether or not it belonged in the canon at all.  The matter was settled by Rabbi Akiba, the great teacher and mystic, who said this: “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.   The Holy of Holies?  Wow!  We’ll have to think about that one.  I mean, really?  We struggle with that, as if our relationship with God should be proper and acceptable, as if it should be reverent of the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being.  So what is reverence?  Is it standing away, removed from the One whom we revere?  Or it is realizing that every molecule of our being desires to connect with God, longs to return to the One who created us.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s falling in love with God.   Implicit in this poem is a sort of pining absence, a longing so deep that the poet cannot be complete without the One that is loved. I think that’s the way we’re called to be. I mean, think about it, we were created in the image of God, made with a shape and a sense into which only God fits. And we struggle. We struggle to find what fits into that shape. And in the absence, in the longing, we finally find that Presence of God, we finally find that One in whom we are destined to fall in love. Seventeenth century mathematician, Blaise Pascal spoke of it as a “God-shaped vacuum” in every human, a hole that only God could fill. It’s like being in love.

Like I said, this poem is not your usual reading from the Bible. There are no parables, no words of judgment, no promises of future and unrequited redemption. Rather, there is presence; there is reverence; there is a depiction of the most joyous and incredible love imaginable. It is flirtatious, and playful, and filled with utter joy. It is the very love of God. And the poet depicts it as transforming, a veritable spring at the end of winter, when life bursts forth from lifelessness and literally consumes death.  (Sounds like resurrection to me!)

Perhaps it is the language that makes us bristle, that makes us squirm a bit in our pews.  Perhaps we are even a bit uncomfortable with a God who is so intimate, so a part of us, that falling in love is all we can do.  Perhaps we really haven’t thought through what it means to be created in the image of someone else.  It means that we have to let ourselves go, that we have to become who God called us to be, that we have to realize that there is something more, that WE are something more, that we are created in the image of our Beloved, that we are created to fall in love with God.  It is about completion; it is about wholeness; it is about being who we were created to be.  It is about falling in love with God and falling into God.

Our lectionary probably doesn’t do us any favors because it doesn’t even allow us to finish the poem.  The next four verses go like this:

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.

My beloved is mine and I am my beloved’s.  That’s a whole lot different than an image of a seemingly-removed deity sitting up somewhere waiting for us to get our act together and catch up.  And it flies in the face of us spending our earthly lives wallowing in chaos and muck, hoping against hope that we will finally rack up enough points to make it to heaven someday.  Once again, it’s present tense.  We are God’s and God, in a show of grace more amazing than we could ever sing, becomes ours.  We are not just called to love and support and please God and try to figure out who or what God is; we are called to let ourselves go, to fall into love with God and fall into God with utter abandon and profound joy.

Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved…My beloved is mine and I am [my beloved’s].  Thanks be to God!
There is only one love.  (Teresa of Avila)
Grace and Peace,
Shelli

 

LENT 4B: The Elephant in the Room (or the Sanctuary!)

Lectionary Passage:  John 3: 14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

It’s the “elephant in the room”, so to speak, this third verse of the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel According to the writer we know as John.  It’s on street corners and marquis, T-Shirts, football helmets, and sometimes painted on faces at sporting events.  It is often taken as the quintessential “insider” verse, the badge of honor for the believing Christian.  It is often interpreted as “God came; God came to save me and the rest of you are on your own.”  But keep in mind that this Gospel was written later than the others.  To be a follower of Christ, a person of The Way, was just downright hard.  You were NOT an insider.   You were NOT the Christian majority that we so comfortably enjoy. You were part of a fledgling and sometimes persecuted minority that was just trying to hold it together.  So, these words would have been words of encouragement, words of strength, a way of defining who they were as a Jewish minority.  It was a way of reminding them why they were walking this difficult (and sometimes dangerous) path—because of the great Love of God. 

But in the hands of the 21st century Christian majority in our society, these words sometimes become weapons.  They turn into words of exclusion, designating who is “in” and who is “out”, who is acceptable in “honest society” and who is not.  Well, first of all, nowhere in the Gospel are we the ones called to make that determination.  And secondly, look at the whole context of this Gospel by the writer known as John.  It starts out with Creation.  It talks about this great Love that is God, a love that was there from the very beginning.  And it proclaims that God came into the world to save the world.  So how did we interpret this that God had quit loving some of us, that some part of humanity was more worthy of God’s love than another?

The Truth (that’s with a capital T) reminds us that God offers us Life, that God, in effect, DID come into the world to save us—mostly, I would offer, from ourselves, from our misdirected greed, our disproportionately selfish ambition, and from our basic desires to be something other than the one who God has called us to be.  God desires this for everyone.  God really does want to save the world from the world.  And so the Kingdom of God seems to us to sometimes be inching in far too slowly rather than pervading our world.  I think that the world DOES need to somehow be moved to believe, DOES need to somehow begin to see itself anew.  After all, we need to overcome ourselves, overcome all of those misdirected desires.  But that will never happen if the cross is raised as a weapon.  SURELY, we get that it’s something other than that!  Remember, God redeemed it.  God took something so loathsome, so foreboding, so, for want of a better word, evil and turned it into Life.  God is doing the same for the world.  God loves the world so incredibly much that God would never leave us to our own devices (or even, thankfully, to those of who count ourselves as well-meaning believers!).  Instead, God comes into the world and offers us life; indeed, loves us so much that God offers us recreation, redemption, and renewal.  Don’t you think THAT’S the story?  It’s not about who’s in or who’s out.  It’s about Love.  It’s a promise that there’s always more to the story than what we can see or fathom or paint on a sign.  To say that we believe does not qualify us for membership; it leads us to The Way of Life.

My, my…this sanctuary is going to get crowded if we open the doors to everyone!  How about that? Perhaps it’s time we deal with the elephant taking up all this space so there will be room for all!

Wow!  Do you believe that this Season is half over?  We have spent a lot of time in these twenty days exploring our own spirituality.  What if in the next twenty days, we explore what that spirituality means, what it means to reach out to others, to BE who God calls us to be.  Let us start on this twenty-first day of Lenten observance by thinking about what that means to open our doors to all.  What comforts and expectations would we have to drop from our understandings?

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

LENT 3B: Tablets From the Sky

“The Ten Commandments” Movie (1956)

Lectionary Passage:  Exodus 20: 1-3 (4-6) 7-8 (9-11) 12-17
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy….Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Things were hard.  Here they were in the middle of the wilderness, hungry, tired, struggling, quarreling, and wondering what in the world they were doing here.  Until now, they had no real identity, no purpose for being here, no point to life.  But this is the point where that all changes.  This is the point at which their lives and their long, horrendous journey become meaningful.  And God gives them a covenant.

Now, contrary to the name of this post, I’m pretty sure that the Ten Commandments did not just drop out of the sky.  It is much more likely that these specific laws were selected from among the gathered moral and social laws of generation upon generation.  In essence, they grew out of a people’s understanding about God and their own relationship with God.  The people are first reminded that God has already saved them before, bringing them out of slavery, bringing them into relationship with God.  But you can’t help noticing that these commandments are formative of who one is before God and how one lives in response to God.  The first four commandments related to one’s relationship with God and the remaining six have to do with the relationship between human beings.  It is really very simple:  You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (with all that you are, with every essence of your being)  And…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

But in our modern-day society, there are those who have tried to make these words “law” in the judicial sense, simply by displaying them in courthouses or public buildings.  But they are missing the fact that these are not laws to obey but the natural way that we are called to respond to the freedom of God.  In fact, these laws, unlike many others, do not sanction a certain type of government or a specific king.  Rather than dictating what we should do, they depict who we are as a people of God.  They are less about behavior than they are about identity—who God is, who the people are, and who we are as people of God.  It is about how we relate to God, how we relate to each other, and, even, how we provide sustenance and nourishment for our faith journey.  And regardless of whether or not we believe they actually dropped out of the sky, they are like manna in the wilderness, providing sustenance and life.  Think of them as declarations of freedom to become who we are called to be, rather than a set of rules or regulations that force us into becoming what someone else wants us to be.

Now, admittedly, I don’t think they belong on the courthouse lawn or on the walls of a schoolroom.  I think they’re bigger than that and I don’t think they can be contained.  They are, yet again, the very breath and essence of the God who dances with us rather than holds court over us to make sure we follow the rules.  The Decalogue is, once again, God with us.  And this Season of Lent is not about following the rules or being burdened with regulations. It is about experiencing the freedom of this God who dances with us—this one God, who, alone, drives our life with a Spirit of steadfast love and the integrity of respect; this one God who offers us rest and reflection that we might delight in Creation and that we might enjoy the best that it has to offer; this one God who knows that we can only understand the love we are given if we love in return, if we honor the ones from whom we came, if we honor life and love and all of Creation; if we are honest with ourselves and with each other, and if we want the very best for our brothers and sisters.  In this way we will understand this God who offers us life and all that it entails.  Hmmm…that’s fairly far-fetched for us.  Maybe it WAS written on a tablet from the sky.

So, continuing with our act of giving up so that we can take on, on this eleventh day of Lenten observance, let go of needing to have it all defined, of needing to have narrow rules that outline our moral and societal standards, and begin to live your life loving God and loving neighbor in the way that God calls you to live.   
Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

LENT 3A: On The Outside Looking In

Lectionary Text:  John 4: 5-26 (27-42)
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

What was she even doing there, this woman of Samaria?  Here she was walking the streets alone, coming to the well in the heat of the day hoping that she wouldn’t run into any of the regulars.  She was tired of being taunted, tired of having to try so hard to ignore the cutting remarks and the cold stares.  And so she comes to draw water hoping against hope that no one would be there, to draw water from this old well steeped in history.  She was surprised when this man appeared.  He was a Jew.  What was he doing here in her city?  She put her head down, hoping that he would just pass by and be on his way.  She didn’t want any trouble.

The less than civil relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans dated back at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.  Both believed in God.  Both had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared tradition of belief.  But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead worshipped God on Mount Gerizim near the ancient city of Shechem.  And with that, a new line of religious understanding was formed.  The Samaritans believed that their line of priests was the legitimate one, rather than the line in Jerusalem and they accepted only the Law of Moses as divinely inspired, without recognizing the writings of the prophets or the books of wisdom.   What started as a simple religious division, a different understanding of how God relates to us and we relate to God, eventually grew into a cultural and political conflict that would not go away.  The tension escalated and the hatred for the other was handed down for centuries from parent to child over and over again.

But this is not what Jesus saw in the woman.  He asked her for a drink and began a relationship that cut through 1,000 years of prejudice and hatred and outsiders.  Jesus saw her not as a Samaritan and not even as a lowly woman but as a fellow human, a sister, a child of God.  And somewhere in the conversation, the woman saw who Jesus was too.  He was no longer a Jew; she was no longer a Samaritan.  He was no longer the insider looking out; she was no longer the outsider looking in.  They were instead part of a shared humanity with a shared vision of what the world looked like.  The woman’s new life begins when she recognizes Jesus’ identity.

Now I don’t think that Jesus had some grand evangelism plan.  He was not trying to add numbers to his membership.  If you read the whole lectionary passage (I cheated and shortened it a bit!), the woman does not convert to Christianity (which wasn’t really invented yet!).  She doesn’t even convert to Judaism.  She is still a Samaritan.  In fact, it says that she drew other Samaritans into who Jesus was.  The point is that Jesus was not trying to build a flock of followers; he was trying to show people how to see that which illumined the Way to God.  The fact that they saw it was enough.  Perhaps the woman and her friends left after this and went to Mt. Gerizim to pray.  Thanks be to God!  Making disciples of Jesus Christ is not about increasing our church’s membersip.  It is not about forming people to look just like us or expecting them to change so that they can join our partying and praying clan.  Jesus didn’t expect the woman to change.  In fact, he didn’t even expect her to join him.  He just showed her what God’s love poured out into the world really looked like.  And from the outside looking in, she saw him.  And then she went to tell others.  Isn’t that what it’s about?  Maybe our problem is that we’re on the inside looking out.  Jesus is here, come to give each of us life.  Maybe when we’ve finished counting the offering and figuring out how many people were here today, we’ll finally look and see the One who offers us life, the One who brings all of the world into God.

So in this season of wandering and wondering, just learn how to see.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli