Sermon preached September 2, 2012
Texts: Song of Songs 2:8-13
I am going to share a story from television in a moment, but in thinking about it, I have to admit, that my television references are pretty dated. It says something about my tv watching. I used to know a lot more about current tv programs. Now whole popular television series have gone by without my ever having watched them. I saw a couple episodes of the show “Monk” and enjoyed them, but that series has been off television for three years now. The shows I know best have been off the air, except for reruns, for quite a few years now. Some of this has to do with what I choose to watch – baseball, football, the Olympics, news, movies on dvd. I watched a lot of the Republican Convention this past week, and I will watch a lot of the Democratic Convention this coming week. Some of this also has to do with time. I don’t have a lot of time to watch television. Life is too busy.
So MASH, the last episode of which aired when I was in seminary. Father Mulcahy was visiting the hospital ward and came upon a soldier reading the Bible. Impressed, Father Mulcahy asked what part of the Bible he was reading. “The Song of Solomon.” “Maybe you should read something a little less edifying.”
The Song of Solomon or The Song of Songs – this is, I think, the first time I have every preached on this fascinating book of the Bible, at least on a Sunday morning.
So why now, why today?
We are headed into a busy time. I am headed into a busy time. We continue to work together as people from the former Chester Park and the former First UMC to make our merger a success. There is work yet to do. As you read in the newsletter, this fall we are going to begin a partnership with Hillside Community Church, renting them space in the social hall on Sunday evenings for their worship services. There will be bumps along the way, but I think there are some good things that can come from this, beyond the additional income for our church. There is the typical autumn programming and before you know it we will be discussing Christmas Eve. Minnesota is receiving a new bishop, and as Chairperson of the Minnesota Conference Committee on the Episcopacy, I am in charge of planning the welcome and installation service next Sunday afternoon. I will be leaving for the Twin Cities shortly following worship next Sunday.
I have found myself saying, “I will be glad when this is over.” I have said it about the new bishop’s installation service, not that I am not looking forward to it, but it is stressful planning it. I know that some of you say that same thing, from time to time – “I will be glad when X is done.” We all will say that from time to time, but if that becomes our default mode, think about what that means. We are wishing our life away.
We need to slow down. Especially as we get busy, we need to make sure we take time to slow down. Last Sunday in talking about thin places, places where we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around and within us (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 156) – I said we work with God to create thin places by praying for open hearts, by paying attention, and by slowing down.
Paying attention and slowing down, that returns me to the Song of Songs – that is the Hebrew name for the book, “The Song of Songs” which probably means the greatest of songs. The Song of Songs is a series of love poems, often in dialogue, between a woman and a man. In the section we read today, the woman imagines her beloved coming to her, and imagines him inviting her away “now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.” The entire book is comprised of such songs, some more sensual than what we read, all that pay attention to imagery, to emotion, to the natural world, to love.
Reading this book, one is encouraged to slow down, to pay attention to what is going on in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human soul. We are encouraged to notice beauty, to pay attention and foster human connection, to celebrate human love.
So we are going to do a little of that in the next few moments.
One important piece of writing about beauty, one that is beautiful in itself is this passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I have shared it before but in seven plus years I think one is entitled to a couple of repeats.
Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous…. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star. The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The anwer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Annie Dillard Reader, 286-287)
Beauty and grace happen. 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. Beauty and grace happen, but when we are crazy busy, we walk right by, we miss them. What moment of beauty last captured your eyes, your ears? What moment of beauty last took your breath away?
Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, essayist, novelist and poet. He has an on-going series of poems he has entitled “Sabbath Poems.” Of them he writes: These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors…. I hope that some readers will read them as they were written: slowly, and with more patience than effort…. The poems are about moments when the heart and mind are open and aware. (from “Preface” to A Timbered Choir)
One of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems is this:
The incarnate Word is with us,
is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign
but everything that is.
There is a connection between beauty and grace and love and God. The incarnate Word is with us, is still speaking, is present always, yet leaves no sign but everything that is. The signs of God’s presence in the world are beauty, grace and love. One could wonder why those who made decisions about books to include in the Bible made the decision to include the Song of Songs, a book which uses the word “kiss” more than the word “God,” a book, in fact, which does not mention God at all. This has often been embarrassing, and both Jewish and Christian commentators have often offered allegorical interpretations of the book – it is really about the love of God for God’s people.
Maybe, but perhaps the real wisdom here is a celebration of beauty, grace and love as signs of God’s presence in the world, and an encouragement to us to slow down, to pay attention.
It is September. Life, busy as always, is going to get crazy busy again. To take the Song of Songs seriously as Scripture is to take the advice of a song about the Queensboro Bridge – the 59th Street Bridge.
Play Simon and Garfunkel, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”
Slow down. Feel groovy. See beauty. Feel God. Amen.