Sunday, September 02, 2012

Comfort me with apples (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 2, 2012)

I come to the garden alone,

While the dew is still on the roses,

And the voice I hear falling on my ear

The Son of God discloses.


And he walks with me

And he talks with me

And he tells me I am his own

And the joy we share as we tarry there

None other can ever know.


Now, that is probably the first and the last time that the gospel song “In the garden” will be quoted in St. Alban’s!


One of the reasons that I and perhaps you, too, was attracted to the Episcopal Church was the music. Not only was the music of a very high caliber, but the words of the hymns had real theological meat on their bones.


If the hymn “In the garden” helps some in their spiritual life, if it gives them inspiration and hope, then that’s great, but I find it too subjective, too sweet, too personal.


Nevertheless, I want to say a good word for “In the garden.” Compare “In the garden” with today’s reading from the Song of Solomon or Song of Songs:


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.”


It makes “In the garden” look main stream!


The Song of Songs is one of the most unusual books in the Bible. It is one of two books in the Old Testament that makes no mention of God. The other is Esther. The Song of Songs is a collection of love poetry that was probably written only about 300 years before Christ.


No one knows why the rabbis included this passionate love poem in the canon or official list of books of the Old Testament.


However, as soon as it was given the imprimatur, the theological seal of approval, and regarded as an acceptable religious book, people began to reinterpret it. The rabbis said that the Song of Songs was an allegory of God’s love for Israel. And the Christian church did the same, but instead of God’s love for Israel, Christians saw it as a story of Christ’s love for the church or God’s love for the human soul.


The medieval monastic reformer and mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, preached 86 sermons, although he covered only 2 chapters and 3 verses. I suspect that 86 sermons can take the joy out of anything!


But the Song of Songs makes us uneasy. What is this love poem doing in the Bible? What are we to do with these images of passionate love?


“Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am sick with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!”


I believe it’s some of the most wonderful love poetry in all of literature, but I wouldn’t be comfortable quoting most of it in the pulpit!


I want to make 2 points about the Song of Songs.

The first is this: The Song of Songs tell us that passionate love is God’s good gift.


In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis reminds us that the Greek language has four words for love:


Agape is perfect, disinterested, self-giving love. It is God’s love for us, and it is the love we aspire to return to God and to others.


Philos is brotherly or sisterly love, as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. It is also the love we have for our friends.


Storge is love for inanimate objects, as in “I love strawberries.”


And eros is the kind of love spoken about in the Song of Songs. It is passionate love. The Greeks believed that eros or erotic love was caused by emptiness or need. We love passionately to fill up an emptiness in ourselves. In other words, eros is a kind of hunger.


The Christian faith has traditionally been uncomfortable with passionate love. Jesus and Paul were both unmarried. Jesus urged his disciples to give up all earthly attachments and follow him. In First Corinthians, Paul says that one should not marry because the end of the world is near.


Furthermore, at a fairly early point many Christians began to hold up celibacy or the unmarried state as something to aspire to. It is central to the monastic tradition. And around the 11th c celibacy became mandatory for priests in the western church.


But the mystics borrow the language of passionate love to describe God’s love for the human soul.


Commenting on the Song of Songs, the medieval mystic Teresa of Avila said that, “It seems to the soul it is left suspended in those divine arms, leaning on that sacred side… It does not know how to do anything more than rejoice, sustained by the divine milk with which its Spouse is nourishing it and making it better…. When it awakens from that sleep and that heavenly inebriation, it remains as though stupefied and dazed and with a holy madness.” (Meditations



Surely if God loves us with a passionate love, then the passionate love we have for our husbands and wives is God’s gift, a gift given to sustain us and fill life with joy.


Martin Copenhaver, the pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church, writes of discovering love letters that his grandparents wrote to each other. He says that he was surprised to discover that they, too, had been young once and in love. “They were real people, after all, animated by the kind of impulses and yearnings I knew quite well. These dignified and upright people—who before my discovery I could only imagine going to bed fully clothed—also had a love for one another that was as hungry and tumultuous as the sea. And as their lives demonstrated, passionate love for another person need not eclipse God, but can enlarge a life in ways that make room for God to be manifest.” (from “Reveling in Romance”)


Exactly. Our passionate love for the person with whom we’ve chosen to spend our lives does not eclipse God. Rather, it enlarges life and creates a place where we can experience God in our love for one another.


The second thing I want to say about the Song of Songs is that it is also a model for our experience of God.


We are Protestants and Protestants are more comfortable with experiencing God as an abstraction rather than as a person.


Now, I know that many of you would rather think of the Episcopal Church as a small “c” catholic church. That’s true; we are catholic - liturgically catholic and even theologically catholic to a degree. Culturally, however, we are Protestants.


We are more like the Lutherans at Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church than like the Catholics down the road at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. We like God to stay safely at a distance and we keep our passions carefully in check. And Western Christians, in general, and Protestants, in particular, treat God more as an abstraction than as a person.


The medieval theologian Alcuin prayed to God this way:


Light eternal, shine in my heart.
Power eternal, deliver me from evil.
Wisdom eternal, scatter the darkness of my ignorance.
Might eternal, pity me.


Power eternal… wisdom eternal… might eternal…and light eternal (sounds like a theological utility company!).


20th c theologian Paul Tillich said that God was “ultimate concern.”


And frankly, it’s difficult to get very passionate about any of that.


The Old Testament, on the other hand, is passionate about God.


The Israelites argued with God. When God told Abraham that he was going to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham argued with God, and finally God agreed to spare Sodom if only ten righteous people could be found there.


The Israelites shouted at God.  Psalm 18 says, “In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.



They got angry with God.  “My God, my God! Why have your forsaken me, and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”


We are even told that Jacob wrestled with God.


They fell in love with God. “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”


And finally they gave us the Song of Songs.


Do you remember what it was like on Valentine’s day when you were little. In grade school, you had to bring a card for everyone. You couldn't just bring a card for Sarah Beth or Billy Joe; you had to bring one for everyone, even for the kids you didn’t really like.


It’s like that with God. When God sends Valentines, God sends one to everyone. Every single one of us  is treated as if he or she is the special one, as if every single one of us is the object of God's own heart's desire.


When we love one special person that way, we catch a glimpse of how God feels about each one of us. And that, I think, is the biggest reason why this passionate ode to romantic love, made it into the Bible. (The last three paragraphs are paraphrase from Martin Copenhaver’s “Reveling in Romance.”)