Saturday, October 04, 2014

retreat address on the Song of Songs


Readings from the Song:
Woman: 1:5-6 (don’t despise me because I am black)
Man: 4:9-16 (you are beautiful and you smell sexy)
Woman: 5:2-8 (ready for “bed” and can’t find lover)
Man: 7:1-9 (you’re beautiful, this time with food)

I joked with my students in describing this retreat
that it was going to be about the sexy, sexy Bible. Was I kidding?
For centuries, we’ve tried to figure out this poem.
Some see it as a kind of performance art,
reenacting a fertility rite to bring good fortune to crops.
Others as an allegory
—a one-to-one metaphor for God’s love for recalcitrant Israel.
It’s read on Passover in many Jewish households because,
in the words of my friend Rabbi Yitz,
“Passover is the dating process
of the just-born Jewish nation with G-d,
culminating in the Marriage Ceremony
under the canopy of Clouds at Mount Sinai.”
For many Christians, it’s been God dating the Church instead.
Others see it as a celebration of physical and romantic love, God-given.
Still others wonder why it’s in our Scriptures at all
—God’s not mentioned once.
Do we ever read it in church? Not much.
And then only the least racy parts.
Like, not the bits with dripping nard or channels or bellies
and breasts and lips.
That stuff is best kept far away from Sunday morning.
Only, why? Are we embarrassed?
We are certainly embarrassing as a Christian people
to non-Christians who don’t understand why
we’re so embarrassed about our bodies and what they do.
The Song of Songs is, at least a little bit, all these things.
The woman who wrote the Song
and the men who included it in the canon of scripture
and the millions of Jews and Christians who have read it
across the centuries have already voted.
This Song is scandalously specific and ambiguous.
It is almost pornographic and deeply spiritual.
The Song of Songs is about sustaining relationships
and about constantly striving
and it is about the love which is the ground of all our being
in one way or another.
First, it’s poetry. Some of your eyes are lighting up at the thought,
others are bracing yourselves for a long, boring lecture
and ultimately not understanding any more than when you began.
Don’t worry, I only mean that it means more than it seems to mean.
Like the TV show Lost. Or whatever your favorite pop song is. Only better.
So, The Song of Songs is about a woman
who is deeply in love and lust with her beloved
who may or may not be King Solomon. Probably not.  
And they have frequent trysts but apparently don’t live together.
Or maybe they’re married,
though the text doesn’t offer much support for that.
Or maybe their relationship is scandalous somehow
since she gets beaten at one point for trying to find him.
It’s not a straightforward story-poem
with a beginning, middle, and end,
nor is it entirely clear who the characters are.
It reads a bit like a series of monologues
between the man and the woman
but they don’t always flow from one to another.
The language, as you might expect, is heightened, is metaphorical;
“your teeth are like a flock of goats,”
“your neck is like a tower, all it’s stones in courses.”
It’s like saying, “your skin is as soft as a kitten’s fur”
or “your hips are as curvaceous as the Guggenheim Museum
and truly, they don’t lie.”
Her neck is not a tower, not really,
and her teeth aren’t hairy like a flock of goats.
It’s about taking inspiration
from the natural and human-made world
—what’s beautiful to you?
That’s what you compare your love to.
“Your body,” she says in one place, “is like ivory.”
Which, it turns out, is a lot like other places in scripture
when someone sees someone else’s “feet,” meaning genitals.
The Hebrew word translated “body”
means a man’s midsection,
so the woman is speaking of the man’s penis as like ivory,
like an elephant’s tusk.
Yes, in a lovely, poetic way, she’s saying,
“my beloved is well-hung.”[1]
Second, the Song of Songs is part of a theology called “Bridal mysticism,”
the theology derived poetically
that Jesus is our collective and individual boyfriend.  
If you think of it literally, it’s a bit creepy.
But also beautiful and has a long history in the church.
We see married people all the time
—certainly we see broken marriages,
but also connectedness and reliance and mutual giving.
Of course we’d use it as a metaphor for our relationship with God.
Bridal mysticism takes Jesus as the boyfriend to its logical extreme
and puts the mystic or the reader in the place of the bride
—when we read these passages, when we pray,
we can experience the great hope a bride feels,
the anticipation of new life,
the excitement of being with the one our heart most desires
—you know this feeling.
Not just the heart palpitations of a crush,
but the deep connectedness to someone we truly love
and who loves us back.
For some of you, that might be a romantic or married partner,
for others it might be a deep soulfriend,
for others it could be the relationship you have
with a parent or sibling.
These are beautiful experiences and we ought to want them—
but they require a certain vulnerability on our end.
We have to be able to be vulnerable to God.
Bridal mysticism requires us to present ourselves
exactly as we are to our bridegroom Jesus.
Third, and maybe most important,
“the protagonist in the Song is the only unmediated female voice in scripture.”[2]
Meaning, every other woman’s story is told by someone else,
either by another character in a story or by the writer of the book.
Here, the woman speaks in the first person,
she is a woman in touch with her own heart and mind,
a woman in touch with her sensuality,
a woman empowered.
And so, because her story needs to be heard, I’ll tell it to you,
at least, an imagined story of how she came to write this poem.


I was told I had to work in my brothers’ vineyards.
I was told I had dark, ugly, black skin.
I was told I’d never amount to anything, that I was unloveable.
I was told I would have babies and that would make me valuable.
I was told to be quiet in church, to submit to my husband, to lie back and think of England.
I was told it was all in my head, that it was my fault.
I was told.
And now I will tell.

When I saw him the first time, I came over all giddy.
I was talking to my friend and suddenly I was stammering
and my hands were shaking and my nipples were hard
and I couldn’t stop staring.
When he talked to me the first time,
I looked down at my shaking knees,
knowing he couldn’t possibly find me pleasant to look at,
but he lifted my chin with a finger and looked at me
like no one else ever had.
He really saw me—what did he see?
He said that I was more beautiful than a flock of goats on the hillside,
more sweet than persimmons dipped in honey,
more elegant the Temple Mount itself.
He said, “she’s a brick house!”
He compared my breasts to round baby sheep
nursing at their mother’s side.
He said my heart was bigger than the Jerusalem marketplace,
that my mind was sharper than the rocks at the shore
which tear up the hulls of boats,
that my ass was as round as melons
and how he wanted to take a bite.
How could he see this when I am, at best, average?
He saw me and he loved me.
And I saw him and I loved him.
We devour each other with our eyes.
When we see each other around town, from yards and yards away,
we cannot resist seeing, we cannot resist knowing.
I know that last night we spoke of philosophy and the nature of God,
we spoke of politics and farming and birds and bees,
we spoke of our fears and of our darkest fantasies.
And we touched each other
—we removed each other’s clothes slowly, achingly slowly,
fingers tracing the hollow of the throat,
like the curve of a spoon dipped in custard,
fingers circling wrists vulnerable as newborn puppies,
fingers caressing inner thighs,
open like a book revealing its secrets.
And today, when we see each other,
we know, deeply, what the other looks like under their clothes,
how they respond to kisses and challenges.
We devour each other with more than our eyes.
Yet I cannot see him now.
And so often, I cannot find him.
He doesn’t respond when I text and our friends have not seen him.
I run across sidewalks and fields,
through the autumn trees smelling of wet leaves and death
and I weep.
I meet people as I wander and they look at me in disgust.
They speak harshly, telling me no one could love me as he does,
telling me I’m making a fool of myself,
telling me to not to speak up for myself,
telling me to go home.
And so I return to my bed, to my empty apartment
which still smells of his soap and his skin and sex.
I return to my shower and wash away my tears in hot water.
I rub lotion into my skin and put on my pajamas,
giving in to exhaustion.
I tell myself it will be better tomorrow.
I tell myself he will return.
I tell myself to fall asleep.
I give in memories and touch myself.
And just on the edge of sleep, I think I hear him next to me,
his hand on my belly, his lips at my ear.
I wake with a jolt but he is not here.
I run to the door,
my hands still slick with lotion and my own moisture,
my feet bare,
but he is not there.
And later we have carved out time to lie on the grass,
feeling the warm sun on our skin,
seeing the red glow of it through our eyelids,
smelling burning leaves and each other’s familiar scent.
Cloves and eucalypus and nard filling my nose and my heart.
His hand in mine, our only touchpoint, yet containing multitudes.
I bask in my beloved’s presence and he in mine.
And tell him,
Many haters cannot quench your love for me.
Many insults will not quench my joy in my own body
nor the want I feel for you, my beloved.
Many sorrows and arguments will not quench our commitment.
Many wars cannot quench the spark of the divine and the hope of peace.
Many waters cannot quench the fire of my love,
neither can floods drown it.

For the holiness of all that is love, hear me tell you my story and know this same love.



[2] Women’s Bible Commentary, “Song of Songs” by Renita J Weems, 164

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

sermon on Romans 12:9-21, conversation, and jerks on campus

This past week at UC has been crazy. A week and a half ago, the students returned to campus and the university put on a ton of events to welcome them, to help them make friends, to encourage them to join extracurriculars, to encourage them to do things other than drink themselves silly. It’s called Welcome Weekend and they say, if you’re not completely wiped out by the end of it, you’re not doing it right.

Check out some of the people who came to the-Edge-House-sponsored Board Game Extravaganza—I stopped counting at 200.

















And here’s a shot of our Giant-Sized Settlers of Catan—it’s a strategy board game from Germany, very fun. We just made it bigger fun.


















We took our espresso set-up onto campus to give out free iced lattes and we had some great conversations with some of the 150 folks who partook.

Earlier in the week I got to speak again to a roomful of technical theatre students at CCM about spiritual wellness. I don’t have a picture of that, I’m afraid, but it was all about how, just like a play needs actors and costumers and set-builders and stage managers and lighting designers and all the people to make it work, so do our lives. Don’t do it alone.

And so it goes. Days on end of deeply emotional and draining events. Ya’ll should come next year, it’s great!

One of my students has been working for a year on a collaboration between DAAP design students and both the Women’s Center and the UC counseling services called #consentculture. It’s in response to the statistic that 1 in 4 collegiate women are sexually assaulted in their college careers. And that first couple weeks of the school year is what they call the “red zone”—more of the assaults happen when folks are new and vulnerable. So my student Heather and others have created this amazing brand and set-up where people can come over and learn about it and pledge to support consent—verbal, ongoing consent. Beautiful. Wednesday, I went to sign the board. As I turned to speak to the woman staffing the table, a young man came up and said, “consent culture? I believe in consent to rape.” Yeah. I figured he was a freshman, didn’t know how offensive he was, so I said, “that’s not funny. Please don’t say that.” And he proceeded to spout a lot of garbage—and that’s the nicest way I can say it—garbage about men and women and our place and men’s right to receive something back. When I noticed aloud that his argument wasn’t logical, he insulted us by saying that lesser minds wouldn’t understand his argument nor his entitlement. Maybe you’re familiar with some of the rhetoric another young man in California spoke before he shot up a sorority house recently? It was like that. And. It was…alarming. And disgusting. And we who were there at the booth did an admirable job of not flying off the handle but I’m going to be honest with y’all: I was angry. I was furious that he and anyone else could believe that women were objects who owed him something. And I was furious that there is a culture that would teach him this. And, weirdly, of all the things in that moment, what was the most frustrating was his unwillingness to allow anyone else to speak. He approached alone, looking for a fight; he left alone, having gotten one.

I’m not offering a treatise on feminism today, nor a travelogue on the Edge House’s Welcome Weekend adventures. But I am going to insist that we talk to and listen to one another.

Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome have been bouncing around in my brain all week. Paul says a lot of things about how to live in Christian community—look back at that in your bulletin [on the screen]. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
This may seem to be a kind of grocery list of virtues that we want to do but know with that sinking feeling that we can’t hope to live up to. And we Lutherans—ahem, y’all Lutherans…—might even go so far as to get comfy with that. You might think that since there’s no way we can check off all that blessing and persevering and living peaceably with everyone, and since we are saved by God’s grace, let’s just not worry so much about it. Our everyday failures to be kind and forgiving aren’t such a big deal in the end.
Yes and no. I mean, yeah, it’s good not to be so nitpicky of ourselves and others—we don’t want to become micromanagers of other people’s lives—it’s exhausting for one thing. And we don’t want to end up hating ourselves for our failures. But. But.
What this is about is how much we need each other. How much we can’t do it alone. Paul is talking about being present, about showing up to our relationships and working to release our own self-interest. He’s talking about reflecting back grace and love and forgiveness rather than our normal, easily-justifiable rejection and annoyance. I won’t go so far as to say that we’re hateful people—seems like our day-to-day sin is annoyance, it’s eye-rolls and unwillingness to engage with the humanity of those around us. None of us here want to destroy the people we meet, but neither do we want others to disrupt our comfortable routine. And Paul’s all about disrupting that comfortable routine and requiring the believers to engage day-to-day kindness. He wants them, basically, to recognize that they need each other, like those theatre students need each other to produce a play and to, you know, live their lives well. Paul’s not saying, “go out there, team, and save the entire world!” He’s saying, “next time you meet that one lady you don’t care for so much, try to be a little gentler, know she’s struggling as well.” He’s saying, “next time you find yourself knowing you’re right, maybe allow for the possibility that you’re not, know that the other person has a story to tell.”

This storytelling and, maybe more importantly, story-listening, might be the thing that saves us. And really listening to someone else’s story is not easy. You might hear something that makes you uncomfortable or something you want to combat. You might hear something that resonates with your own deepest truth and it makes you weep. You might hear something ­­­­­­­­­­that opens your brain or heart to something unexpected and transforming.

For us to be able to do what Paul’s saying, to love with mutual affection, rejoice, be patient, persevere, extend hospitality, and live in harmony, we have to be vulnerable with each other. We have to be willing to actually talk to each other about more than the weather and the budget and our children and grandchildren. All good things, all good things. But we have to be willing to disagree about how to live out this divine love we’ve been given and still sit down to worship together.

So I want you to partner up. Turn to someone near you and if you need to add a third person because of where folks are sitting, great. Pulling from Paul’s letter to Rome, I invite you to share with your partners when was the last time you extended hospitality to a stranger? What difference did it make? I’ll give you 4 minutes to talk…

…friends, I invite you to turn your faces and hearts forward again.
Without sharing confidences, what was that like for you? What did you learn?

Now, that was only 4 minutes. Imagine if our lives were shaped by listening to each other and to looking for the ways in which we need each other?  Imagine if we weren’t so concerned with looking for big burning-bush signs and looked for the signs in each moment of God’s action? If a single smile from your mother suggested God’s toothy grin. If the bubbling laughter of a vacation reminded you of God’s playfulness in creating us in the first place. If a frown or a tear reminded us of God’s brokenheartedness at our self-centeredness. If doing the dishes reminded you of your baptism.
Friends, the church only functions because we have musicians and readers and ushers and offering counters and council members and Habitat for Humanity volunteers and students and teachers and prophets and apostles. It doesn’t function because we’ve all got it figured out. Just like how this place runs, so are our lives. Don’t do it alone. Know that no matter what things look like in any given moment, you are not alone. You are welcomed into the Kingdom. And the people who annoy you or you roll your eyes at or you avoid, they’re not alone either. Because they have you. We are a people of welcome. Let’s offer that welcome in the ordinary moments of our lives.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

sermon on Israel/Palestine, BS, and Romans 8



I bring you greetings, friends,
from the students at The Edge House campus ministry at UC
—we are always grateful for you
and your continued ministry here at Prince of Peace.
Alas, my students could not be here
because of work and classes and not-being-in-Ohio,
but they send their love.
They also send me as an emissary
to share with you a little of our pilgrimage
to the Rocky Mountains at Spring Break this past year.
Each year we offer our Spring Break as a tithe of sorts
—time away from our normal schedules and busy-ness
to observe God’s action in the world
and to give back what we have been given.
This year, we restructured our trip as a pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is a journey to a place of special spiritual significance.
There’s a fine line between that and being a tourist
—the idea is that we’re going somewhere
to see something powerful with our own eyes,
not just taking pictures and moving on.
Used to be, folks walked hundreds of miles
to a cathedral or even the Holy Land,
others have needed to go to Ground Zero or to Auschwitz
to see it with their own eyes
—for us, it was the Rocky Mountains.
We were able to worship with our friends at HFASS,
to spend retreat time in the deeply snow-covered mountains,
to work with the Boulder parks department,
and to walk several labyrinths.
For me, the most beautiful moment came
when we were walking our second labyrinth
—our work had been cancelled for the day due to high winds,
so we were at loose ends.
I admit to being angry about the loss of a workday
—aren’t we here to help out?
We searched out a labyrinth in the very public lobby
of a large office building.
It was laid out in the stonework of the floor
—a life-sized recreation
of the 11-circuit labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.
After walking it, we explored the art gallery
just off the lobby where the building’s developer
had donated his and his wife’s art collection.
It was beautiful.
Sculpture and watercolors and furniture
—just amazing to have it there in a public space
for the folks who came in and out of the office building.
A security guard came over and told me
that the old lady who had just come in was the developer’s wife
and that she had dementia.
Her husband pays for a pianist to play for her in the lobby
twice a week and she sits there,
a look of delight on her face as she dances in her chair.
Beautiful.
And then. And then.
On my way out of the gallery, I saw a small painting
of a boy in tall grass next to some large text.
It was a quotation from the developer
saying that their collection had many critically-praised pieces
worth millions of dollars.
And that when one critic visited, he stood still,
taking in a wall of this magnificent art and then said,
“I really love this small one here, the boy in the tall grass.”
And the developer said, “That’s one of my favorites as well.
My wife painted it.”
His wife, who was right there, unaware.
I wept for their life together and for the gift he had given her.
If we had not had our work called off,
we would never have experienced that love.
Dementia cannot separate us from the love of God.
Anger with plans changing cannot separate us from the love of God.

Last week, I helped celebrate at the funeral
of a young adult from Good Shepherd.
Jackie died of a heart attack at 34.
She was a lovely, committed, active woman and she just suddenly died.
At her funeral, I did what I expect most of us do,
grieve her loss but also wonder what I was doing with my life
—what risks am I taking for the Kingdom? Am I?
And then I stood up to read the lessons,
including one of my most favorite passages, Romans 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And I thought, “yes, yes. Nothing can separate us.
This is our hope, this is my experience.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
Death cannot separate us from the love of God.
Misery and grief and even anger at such a young person dying
cannot separate us from the love of God.
And then. And then.

Thursday this past week, I got a call from my hair salon
saying that the man who has been doing my hair for years,
J who was 49 and snarky and lovely, had died.
I couldn’t process it. I still can’t.
And then I was at the gym on the elliptical,
what’s on the morning show on the TV right in front of me?
A grainy video of a man in India beating a small child.
Played on repeat as the commentators discussed how terrible it was.
And then another video of a nanny doing the same thing.
I couldn’t look away—it was right in front of me and I couldn’t look away.
We know these things happen,
maybe we even try to stop them in a vague kind of way,
but to see it with our own eyes, to really see it…
And then to hear of the death tolls in the current version
of the Israel/Palestine conflict
—yesterday, the BBC reported that of the more than 800 people
who have died so far,
at least 278 are Palestinian women and children.
The UN says 73% of the Palestinian dead are civilians.
I’m very aware that talking about this is going to make someone mad.
I imagine at least one of you out there right now is seething already.
One of the reporters I heard talking about it said that
reporting on anything at all related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict
will get you death threats
                  Israel is not a superhero. Palestine is not just a victim.
—it’s so fraught, so complicated,
so emotional for everyone involved,
and even for us who aren’t involved.
What are we supposed to think as Christians
—not as a religious sect or as Christian Americans,
but as followers of Jesus Christ
who preached peace
and also preached not letting oppressors get away with oppression?
What are we supposed to think
when Israel accuses Hamas of using human shields
and Hamas accuses Israel of firing first
and intentionally attacking civilian targets?
And both sides have been fighting over the same tiny plot of land
since at least 539 BCE.
I remember hearing a WW2 vet speaking brokenly
of the invasion of Normandy when the Germans
had put women and children on the tops of the gun turrets
along the beach so the Allies would have to shoot them.
Can you imagine? Who would do that?
If we stop to think about it at all,
if we do any research (and not in the comments section of news articles), we know it’s so very complicated and so very tragic.
So many people are dying and being displaced
there and Syria and Sudan and everywhere over what?
Really, though, over what?
I’m calling BS.
Because it sure looks like something can separate us from the love of God.
Is it easy for us here in safe middle-America
to say nothing can separate us from the love of God
when children all over the Middle East
and even here in our inner cities grow up with PTSD?
Is it ridiculous for us to say that neither things present nor things to come
nor powers can separate us from the love of God?
When our own savior Jesus Christ hung on the cross and cried out
eloi eloi lama sabacthani
—my god, my god, why have you forgotten me?”
What the hell are we doing to ourselves as human beings? There and here?
What is keeping us from recognizing God in each other?
What is allowing us to insist on our own way
like toddlers refusing to share toys
when those toys are basic nutrition and access to health care
and, I don’t know, not living in fear for your life,
whether it’s in Gaza or Sandy Hook?
This is a difficult time to preach grace. And, really, it always is.
The problem is that grace is staring us in the face.
These moments, these years when we are destroying each other
and ignoring how we’re destroying each other,
this is when Jesus is all up in our business,
refusing to break eye-contact,
standing in front of us awkwardly and saying,
“Please” and “It’s ok.”
And then. And then.
We see with our own eyes, even for only a moment,
that this is not how it has to be.
This is not how it always is.
There’s a moment at the wedding of an Edge House alum
when he blushes at the loving things his best man is saying to him,
and their friendship,
the friendship between an atheist and a Christian,
is the shape of the Kingdom.
There’s a moment when your child snuggles into your bed with you
when you are not annoyed because she’s out of bed
but overwhelmed with love simply by the smell of her sweaty hair.
There’s a moment when slaves in the American South
jumped the broom and got married
because they found love in the midst of terror.
There’s the moment when a mother whose son was murdered
takes the murderer into her life
and they grow to love and forgive one another.
There’s a moment when women in concentration camps
wrote down recipes for foods they would never eat again
because doing so was their resistance, their way of saying,
“this is not the end of our story. You cannot destroy our hope.”
It’s not that Gaza and Sudan and my friend’s death don’t matter
because they really do—but that something else is going on.
We are fooling ourselves if we think we can define it completely
and we are fools if we can define it by what we value here in America,
but our great hope, the good news that Jesus brought and still brings,
is that something else is going on,
something better,
something life-giving and creative
and that God is doing something with our suffering.
Not that God planned our suffering or somehow wills it,
but that God can make something beautiful
with even the worst parts of our lives.
And we can participate in that.
And then. And then.
Paul says “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height,
nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Terror cannot separate us from the love of God.
Entitlement and complacency cannot separate us from the love of God.
Liberalism or conservatism, patriotism and protest,
rejection and retaliation cannot separate us from the love of God.
Nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God.