Sunday, July 26, 2015
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
All three of these people have something in common.
A woman is on a bumpy flight. There has been turbulence since take off. It’s a dark and stormy night and lightning flashes outside. The plane circles the airport, waiting for the right time to land. The woman squeezes her eyes tight and says a prayer as they begin their descent. A few bumps and jolts and finally, the plane touches down. There is an audible sigh of relief throughout the cabin.
A little boy of 3 or 4 runs and plays at the playground. He climbs up a tall ladder halfway and then decides he wants to come back down. Slowly, slowly, he inches back towards the ground, gripping the ladder rungs for dear life. As he gets to the last rung, his foot searches and reaches for the ground. Finally, his toe touches, he jumps down, and is off running again.
An older child is splashing at the city pool. Feeling brave she decides to doggie-paddle out into the deeper water for the first time. She walks out to where her feet can barely touch – she’s standing on tiptoes now. She begins to paddle out a bit into deeper water. When her arms tire, she puts her feet back down but they won’t reach. Looking a little panicked, she paddles back to the shallower water. Toes touch and then she is flat footed. She smiles.
Sometimes, what we need the very most is to be on solid ground.
When there’s a storm in our soul, when we climb a little higher than we meant to, or swim out a little further than we intended….sometimes what we really crave is to be grounded. To put both feet firmly on solid ground and to rest assured that the world is still spinning, gravity is still pulling, and we are still exactly where we are supposed to be.
When our lives are thrown off-kilter, what is it that calls us back to ourselves? When our toes reach out for solid ground, what are they reaching toward? Where are we rooted? What is our foundation?
Sometimes we are tossed and thrown about by something major: a diagnosis, an accident, a death, an arrest, a divorce, a sudden change in financial stability. And even good news can be disorienting: a new job, a move across the country, a new love, a new life, winning the lottery. Stress is stress, whether it’s caused by good news or bad news. Our bodies register it in the same way.
And then there are the little things that disorient us each and every day. Henri Nouwen, that wise Catholic priest and scholar, speaks about these little things in his tiny book Making All Things New, published in 1981. Nouwen says we human beings are creatures who are often occupied and preoccupied by many things. He writes of all the tiny things that make up our days and keep us busy: phone calls, tasks on a to do list, projects to finish, appointments to keep. Nouwen says:
In our production-oriented society, being busy, having an occupation, has become one of the main ways, if not the main way of identifying ourselves. Without an occupation, not just our economic security but our very identity is endangered. This explains the great fear with which many people face their retirement. After all, who are when we when no longer have an occupation?
He continues on to describe our tendency to be pre-occupied. We “fill our time and place long before we are there,” he says. We “what if” ourselves to death, wondering about the possibility of things that might occur as some point in the future. “Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations,” Nouwen says, and I feel him speaking a word of truth into my life.
In the midst of all that occupies and preoccupies us, how do we stay grounded? That’s the great mystery, right? What calls us back to ourselves and reminds us of who we are and whose we are? Nouwen says that as all these things compete for our time and attention, the answer is not to shut ourselves away and ignore the whole world around us. Instead, he says, “Jesus’s response to our worry-filled lives is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities.”
If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know that there are few things that shift our point of gravity, relocate the center of our attention, or change our priorities quite as immensely as falling in love. Whether it’s a passionate head-over-heals romantic love, the love that we feel for a newborn baby, or the love that we experience when we are born-again and come to Christ for the first time….love is love, and it is certainly jarring and disorienting.
The lovers in the Song of Songs recognize this. They often speak of being disoriented, thrown off kilter by their feelings for one another.
But there are also moments where it is very clear that the experience of loving one another grounds them in a very real way. The lovers are lost in one another, but in giving themselves over to their desire, they find their way back to a centering place. Their feet touch solid ground and they turn outward to the world around them, re-centered and ready to engage with the wider world.
A few months ago, I was in a conversation with some clergy colleagues about sexual ethics and my wise friend the Rev. Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy said this about determining whether a sexual relationship is ethical: “My general test is whether a relationship, however it's constructed, turns people to the larger community in love and service, or turns people inward. Does the relationship take love and grow and spread it? Is there trust and mutuality that extends beyond the relationship? Do we, who witness, become better and more loving people for the example of love before us?”
Does the relationship turn us outward to the larger community? Does the relationship ground us more fully and help us spread our roots so we can grow together and share that love with the rest of the world? When I officiate a wedding, I always ask the couples a similar question. I say, “Do you promise to share the love you have found together in order to be instruments of healing and hope for the world around you?”
It is clear that the lovers in the Song of Song are turned outward. They are lost in one another, yes, but they are also out and about in the world. Today we read the words together, “Our couch is green, the beams of our house are cedar, our rafters are pine.” The lovers are rooted in the natural world. Throughout the Song they use poetic, beautiful descriptions of the natural world as they profess their love for one another. They are connected to the changing of the seasons, saying, “The winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”
Now maybe they are outside on their green couch in nature because that’s the easiest place for them to slip away for a rendezvous unnoticed. But we also know that they are able to sneak around in their mothers’ homes, so I don’t think that’s the only reason they choose to meet up in nature. Instead, I think there is something about contemplating the beauty of another human being that turns us outward. We gaze into our lover’s eyes or smell the sweet smell of a baby’s breath and our senses are captivated. We are more receptive to the wider world around us. We notice the smell of lilacs on the breeze, or the crunch of dry leaves under our feet. We linger for a moment to watch the sunset rather than rushing into our house at the end of the day.
When we are grounded – rooted firmly in love, we find ourselves turning outward, ready to enter into relationship with the wider world. When we care deeply for another human being, we often find ourselves ready and willing to care for more people or to care more intentionally for the earth. Isn’t that funny? You’d think that when you give love away, you’d run low…but, instead, loving seems to lead to more loving.
Stephanie Paulsell, the Harvard professor whose work on the Song of Songs has guided our sermon series this summer, says this of the lovers in the Song:
The care that the lovers take with one another in their loving seems to grow organically out of their care for the life of the earth that makes a home for their love. …. They bring their love in line with the rhythms of the earth. … The tender care they give to budding plants is the same care they give to one another. 
Although we do not live in a world of pomegranates and figs and gazelles bounding over mountains, we do live in our own natural world. We live in the world of prairie chickens and coyotes and little bluestem. A world of creeks (or “cricks”) and turkey buzzards and tomatoes and cicadas.
Paulsell says that praying the Song and being aware of the way the lovers are turned outward can help us. In a society where we are often taught to control and bend nature for our needs, the Song can help us remember that are partners with the natural world. We can listen to the call of the lovers in the Song – calling us to come outside and see what’s new in our world. Calling us to stop and look at the coneflower, to squint our eyes for the dots of color that the sumac creates on the distant hills, to gaze in wonder at the mushrooms that spring up overnight just outside our office door.
In a world where we are occupied and pre-occupied with so many things, the lovers in the Song of Songs are a model for us. They remind us of the goodness that can come from setting aside our to-do lists and simply enjoying the company of another human being. And they remind us that the best relationships are the ones that turn us outward, making us more aware of the world around us.
The Song of Songs is an invitation to return to our roots. To re-ground ourselves and remember our foundation. When we set aside the distractions of the day and remember that we are grounded in God’s eternal love and care, that we are called beloved by God, that we are invited into relationships of joy and care with God, humanity, and the natural world….when we ground ourselves in those truths we are restored, renewed, and turned outward to offer our own love and care to the world around us. Thanks be to God.