Sunday, July 26, 2015

“Grounded in Love”

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?[1]

He continues on to describe our tendency to be pre-occupied. We “fill our time and place long before we are there,”[2] 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,”[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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. [6]

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.

[1] Nouwen, Henri. Making All Things New, p. 23-25.
[2] Nouwen, 25.
[3] Nouwen, 26.
[4] Nouwen, 42.
[5] Song of Songs 2:11-12
[6] Paulsell, Lamentations and the Song of Songs Commentary, p. 180-181. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Song of Songs: Alternative Music"

Sunday, July 19, 2015  
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Just over a week ago, during Wimbledon, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image with Ambition.”[1] The lead in is all about Serena Williams and I adore Serena Williams, so I clicked through.

In the article, several of tennis’s top female athletes and their coaches are interviewed about how they feel about the appearance of their bodies. There are quotes from women who say things like, “Of course I care about [what I look like] because I’m a girl,” and a player who says she hates to see photos of herself hitting two-handed backhands because her bulging arm muscles make her feel “unfeminine.”

The article goes on and on, contrasting Serena Williams’ muscular physique with the mostly smaller builds of other female tennis stars. Andrea Petkovic, says she doesn’t want to appear “unfeminine” and acknowledges that caring about this is “stupid” but that all women have insecurities about their bodies. Petkovic says, “I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious.”

And I need to read you this full paragraph because summarizing it just won’t do it justice,
Maria Sharapova, a slender, blond Russian who has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements, said she still wished she could be thinner. “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,” she said, laughing.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Maria Sharapova looks like, but I can’t really imagine her thinner. She is 6’2’’ and weighs 130 pounds. Now, I’m not shaming thin people. I think all body types are beautiful. But I am distressed to think that someone who is already as slender as Sharapova wants to be even thinner. I am saddened to discover that women who are at the top of their game, women who use their bodies daily to excel in their chosen field, women who are revered for what their bodies can do….some of these women think that it’s “every girl’s wish” to be skinnier.

The article, though, was written to contrast Serena Williams’ with these other women. Which isn’t hard to do, of course. In addition to schooling them all left and right, Williams’ has never really “fit in” in the world of tennis. She is black. She’s from Compton. She has a powerful, muscular physique….and she’s proud of it.

She says this wasn’t always the case. That, for years, she resisted weights because she didn’t want to bulk up. But, eventually, she says, she realized, "you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me.[2]

I can’t decide if it makes me feel better or worse to know that all of these strong, healthy, powerful, successful women also look at themselves in the mirror in the morning and worry about what they look like. I do think it speaks powerfully to the reality that it’s nearly impossible to grow up female in our society without absorbing the images and demands that are thrown at us every day. The impossible standards of beauty are – just that – impossible. And I know that men, too, struggle with confidence because of unreasonable expectations.  

One of the things my faith has provided for me over the course of my life has been an alternate story. When the world tells me one thing, my faith and my experience of God tells me another. When the world tells me I’m doing it all wrong and that I’m not enough and no one will love me, my faith reminds me that I am a beloved child of God. When the world tells me I need to hoard everything and make sure I am prepared to take care of myself, my faith reminds me that I am called to look around me and see who might need my help. When the world tells me that the most important thing about my worth as a woman is my appearance, my faith reminds me that I am so much more than an object for strangers to gaze upon.

The Song of Songs is a poem that goes on and on about beauty. A quick read through might cause a feminist like me to say, “Ugh. Another book that’s all about objectifying women,” and put it away.

But if we do that, we miss out on so much. Because the Song of Songs is actually quite subversive. And it provides several alternative stories to the ones the world tells us about our worth, our sexuality, and our relationships with one another.

The two main characters in the Song are both nameless. One is a man and one is a woman, but as Harvard scholar Stephanie Paulsell notes in her commentary on the book, “Gender and sexuality remain fluid in the history of the interpretation” of this book. She reminds us that “there are many places for a reader to stand in the Song.”[3] Those in same-sex or same-gender relationships can certainly learn from this book as well.

One of the astounding things about the Song is that the woman has so very much to say! In many parts of the Bible women are silenced, but in the Song the woman speaks up. Two-thirds of the entire text are spoken by the woman. By the way, when you are reading this on your own, one of the tricks is this: you need to think of it as a drama. There are three speakers, the woman, the man, and the “daughters of Jerusalem” (who are basically a chorus). Unfortunately, there are no headers in the text telling you who is speaking when. I’ve found it helpful to write that in myself in the margins of my Bible.

The woman’s words and the words of her lover provide a striking alternative to other parts of the Bible when it comes to gender and sexuality. The Song is surprisingly progressive and sings an alternative story that is powerfully good news for us today. I want to highlight just three of these alternative songs contained within the holy words of this book.

The first alternative song contained in this book is the song of a confident woman.  Like Serena, the woman in the Song is proud of herself. The very first words she speaks, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” are words of a person who is comfortable in their own skin and feels at ease playfully inviting their partner to come closer.

As the woman speaks, she tells her lover, “I am black and beautiful,” or in older translations, “I am black BUT beautiful.” The Hebrew can be read either way, apparently. Over the years, some have read this as the woman apologizing for her appearance, but others see her as claiming her own, unique beauty. It’s important to remember “black” as a race didn’t exist when these words were written.

Instead, the woman is referring to her skin as dark, because she has been laboring in the fields in the sun. Apparently, this is not seen as desirable in her culture, but she says confidently, “I am beautiful.” Throughout the Song, the woman speaks of herself – her actions, her body, her spirit – in positive terms. She is not looking in the mirror at her cellulite and wishing she could be thinner.

The woman says that her skin became dark because her brothers forced her to work in the fields. She says, “They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept.” Here, she gives us a clue to something else we can learn from this book. The second alternative song contained in this book is a song about the nature of human sexuality.

Throughout the book, both lovers use the phrase “vineyard” as code for the woman, specifically the gift of her sexuality. Let me tell you plainly: this book would never make it into an abstinence-only sex ed course. The woman and the man are clearly not married. Further, they seem to be young – sneaking around from place to place, trying to find hidden places where they can enjoy each other in private. Interestingly enough, they sometimes hide out in their mothers’ homes – apparently with the approval of their mothers. There is no discussion of marriage, no statements about a commitment that will be forever.

And there is no shame. The woman says, “My own vineyard I have not kept,” meaning, “I am in control of my own body and I have given it to another for mutual enjoyment.” She’s not apologetic. She’s not ashamed. She is simply enjoying the God’s good gift of her body and her sexuality, which she chooses to share with another person she respects and trusts for their mutual enjoyment. There’s no pledge card for her to sign, saying she’ll “save herself for marriage.” She owns herself, she answers only to herself, and she uses her own body as she chooses.

The woman offers herself to her lover because she wants to. And her lover eagerly accepts. The two banter back and forth and delight in all that the other has to offer. It is a relationship of mutuality and respect. The third alternative song contained in this book is a song of two lovers who are equals.

Throughout the book, the lovers are constantly making requests of each other. Paulsell notes that they make these requests in the forms of “wishes, invitations, and the sweetest words of persuasion.”[4]  No where in the book do they make demands. There is no “you must” in this relationship.[5]

Instead, they playfully sing words of adoration and love, beckoning the other to come nearer, to join in the dance.

One of the most clever things about their back-and-forth is the way the lovers echo each other’s images. The woman introduces an image and the man later returns it to her. Or the man speaks in a particular code and the woman returns the favor. For example, in the first chapter the woman says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.” Much later, near the end of the book, the man returns, “your kisses are like the best wine that goes down smoothly.”[6] It’s a bit like watching a relaxed tennis match, actually, as the two receive the words from their partner and gently return the ball back to the other side of the court.  

The two are completely enamored with each other and totally devoted. In the closing chapter the man jokes about Solomon having so many lovers, but, he says, “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself. You, O Solomon, may have the thousand.” He only needs her. She only needs him. The woman says of the man, “This is my beloved and this is my friend.”

Their respect for one another is beautiful to observe.

The book is a gift to us. It is a song that needs to be heard. Because we are forever inundated with other songs that tell us lies: that we are not beautiful enough, that our worth lies only in our appearance, that sexual desire is something to be ashamed of, that our roles in our romantic and sexual relationships are governed by our gender.

But the Song of Songs sings an alternative song.

In this book, we are reminded that it is a joy to be cherished by another human being. We are reminded that we are able to more fully see the Holy by appreciating the beauty found in humanity. The Song reminds us that sexuality is a good gift from God and that it is meant to be enjoyed between consenting, mature people. The Song holds up a model of a relationship where two people trust each other, care for one another, enjoy each other. The lovers delight in each other, play together, and listen to each other closely. They are open to the possibility of being changed by another. Through their interactions, we see them shift and change as they listen to their beloved friend.

Isn’t this what romantic love, sexual love is supposed to be about? Opening ourselves to the possibility of more living ever more fully into God’s dreams for us? Opening ourselves to the gift of change and growth? Opening ourselves to joy, pleasure, and fun experienced in an atmosphere of trust and respect?

And to think…all of that was right here in the Bible all along. Who would have guessed? 

[2] All the quotes above are from the NYT article:
[3] Paulsell, Stephanie and Harvey Cox. Lamentations and the Song of Songs, p. 185.
[4] Paulsell, 259.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Song of Songs 7:8

Sunday, July 12, 2015

“Arise, my love, and come away.”

Song of Songs 2: 8-17
Sunday, July 5, 2015  
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

When I’ve worshiped in Jewish congregations, there is a particular song that comes near the beginning of the service that I always enjoy. It’s called Lecha Dodi. Most congregations I’ve been in sing it with an upbeat tune and everyone is smiling and enjoying the moment. There are usually lots of verses….like 8-10, and a chorus that repeats over and over again, so even I can get the hang of the Hebrew for the chorus.

The translation of the chorus is, “Come, my beloved, to meet the Bride, and let us greet the presence of Shabbat.” It is the song that is sung to mark the beginning of Sabbath each week.

Sabbath – that great jewel of creation, that palace in time – Shabbat is welcomed each week as a Bride by Jews around the world. It is a day of rest. A day to put aside work and wordly concerns. A day to love and be loved by God, the Holy One of Israel.

There is an ancient Jewish midrash that explains how the Sabbath came to be called the Bride of Israel. It is said that when God created the world, each day had a partner. Monday had Tuesday, Wednesday had Thursday and so on. Only the seventh day, the Sabbath, was left without a partner. The Sabbath complained to God and Yahweh told the Sabbath Day that Israel would be its partner. [1]

The words, “Come, my beloved” in Lecha Dodi come from the seventh chapter of the Song of Songs. You have probably also heard the book called the Song of Solomon, but the actual Hebrew title in the first verse of the book is best translated, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.”

In addition to being remembering it each Friday when greeting the Sabbath, Jews around the world read the entire Song of Songs each year at Passover after the Passover meal. They read it to remember God’s great love for the people of Israel. Rabbi Akiva, one of the most revered sages in the Jewish tradition, had a high regard for the Song of Songs. He said, “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.”[2]

Others through the centuries have disagreed with Rabbi Akiva. People from all walks of life – scholars, rabbis, pastors, laypeople – simply do not know what to do with the Song of Songs. After all, taken at face value, it’s erotic poetry. There’s no way around that reality. God is not mentioned once in the Song of Songs (making this book one of two in the Bible where God is not mentioned….the Book of Esther is the other, and our ancestors were so uncomfortable with the omission that they tried to insert God at a later date.)

There was a fair amount of debate over whether such a book should even be included in the canon. The Church today seems to have mostly moved past debate in favor of simply ignoring the book. I’ve never preached a sermon on it. I’m guessing most of you have never heard a sermon on it. It only shows up once in the entire three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary and the newer Narrative Lectionary, created just five years ago, leaves it out entirely.

If you’ve ever heard it read in a church, it was probably at a wedding. I can remember sneaking peeks at it as a teenager when I was bored during worship. I giggled over the entertaining and  imagery. I grew up watching MTV and reading Cosmo. I was no stranger to explicit material, but to see it in the Bible? That was too much. I laughed at it and put it aside.

For centuries, though, the Song was revered as one of the most beloved books in the Bible.

Harvard scholar, Stephanie Paulsell, who was here in Manhattan a few months ago as Ecumenical Campus Ministry’s Theologian-in-Residence reminds us that, in fact, medieval Christians commented on the Song more than any other book.

Paulsell describes how medieval Christians may have thought of the Song, as “a bottomless pool of meaning one could swim in one’s whole life long and never sound the bottom. It was a garden in which one might encounter God walking in the cool of day. For these readers, the Song of Songs was a devotional text surpassing all others.”[3]

I guess the author wasn’t kidding when they called it the Song of Songs. Speaking of the author, we don’t know who wrote it. It’s unclear why the connection to Solomon is stated in the first verse, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” but scholars agree it was almost certainly not written by Solomon.

More than likely, many authors wrote the book. It is a collection of poems, gathered together by an editor, who added the title. The tie to Solomon may be because of his reputation as a prolific lover (though the book actually pokes fun at Solomon’s promiscuity) or simply a nod to the King’s love of writing. He was rumored to have written thousands of poems.

No matter how you look at it, saying that the book is associated with King Solomon is certainly a way to give it some credibility and get it noticed. 

One medieval Jewish Rabbi, Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona saw the Solomon connection a different way. Rabbi Ezra believed the name “Solomon” was synonymous with God and believed the Song was the best of all Songs because God sings it each and every day to humanity.[4]

I love that image of God singing a love song to us each day. The Song has long been interpreted as allegorical. Jews and Christians alike have tried to make a book with no God-talk more explicitly theological by interpreting it as a story about God’s love for humanity. It’s not just about what we see on the surface – a beautiful love poem about the escapades of two young lovers – but it is also about the deep desire God and humanity have for one another.

Pre-modern people were, by and large, much more comfortable with multiple readings of the text than modern people were. I wonder if, in our post-modern age, we are coming back around to a place where layered interpretations add richness, rather than confusion?

I know that, for me, the layers upon layers of interpretation available in this one book speaks volumes about the complexity of our relationship with Scripture and the vast unknowable nature of God.

One small example of the allegorical interpretations that have flourished over the centuries: Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila both interpreted the opening lines, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” as the intense desire humanity has for the incarnation of God in Jesus. As Paulsell puts it, “the pressing of divinity into human flesh.”[5] By the way, Bernard of Clairvaux really loved this book. He wrote 82 sermons on it in the 12th century. Eighty-two! And he never even got past the second chapter. So if you think the five sermons we’re doing here are too many, just remember Bernard.

A quick preview of the weeks ahead before we wrap up today’s introduction.

Next week we’ll be exploring one of my favorite things about this book: the surprising nature of the relationship between the man and woman in the Song. The woman speaks about two-thirds of the text. She is in the driver’s seat. She is proud of her body, exhibits ownership over her own self, and is supremely confident. The relationship between the two is one of respect and mutuality. The overall sexual ethic of the Song is surprisingly progressive on many levels (which may be part of the reason Christians today rarely read it). I should probably mention that next week is likely to be the sermon that deals most explicitly with human sexuality. We might be looking at a sermon that’s rated PG-13 instead of PG.

For week three, we’ll be taking a look at the relationship of the lovers to their natural surroundings. Many scenes in the Song take place in a lush setting, outdoors. The language is rooted in earthy images. In the pages of this book, we find a vision of harmony and partnership between humanity and the Earth. It is for this reason that the Song is often said to un-do the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible.[6] This is a book where there is no shame in nakedness, no shame in knowledge, and a strong connection between the humans and the Garden they inhabit.

Week four will take us through some of the more unsettling portions of the text. There are a couple of passages where the woman is desperately seeking her partner but unable to find him. In these times of absence, we are reminded that none of us can fully know even those closest to us (let alone, God). We will explore the unknowingness of love – the flow of absence and return.

The last week is still taking shape. But I will try to bring us back around, in some way, to the experience of the Song as a book of devotion.  What can we learn about reverence? How do we read ourselves into the text? How can the Song of Songs change our experience of the Holy and of one another?

I am looking forward to going on this journey with you. I encourage you to dust off your Bible at home this week. The entire book is only eight chapters long and can easily be read in one sitting. As we enter the garden of the Song of Songs, let us do so with reverence and thanksgiving for the great gift of love in all its many forms.

[3] Paulsell, Stephanie. Lamentations and The Song of Songs from the Belief commentary series, 171.
[4] Paulsell, 190.
[5] Paulsell, 173.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

"Hold On"

Sunday, July 5, 2015  
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

This is what happens when I plan ahead: it doesn’t work. Today was supposed to be the beginning of a five week sermon series on the Song of Songs. I wrote the first sermon of that series already, back before I left for vacation. But then marriage equality happened, and Bree Newsome scaled the flag pole in South Carolina, and eight black churches across the south have burned to the ground….and that sermon is just going to have to wait.

Last week, the UCC General Synod was happening in Cleveland, OH. I am so thankful Kerri Keller and Amanda Tross were there, representing the K-O Conference, and I can’t wait to attend their Dinner Discussion later this month so we can learn more about their experience. As I kept an eye on General Synod from afar, one of the things that caught my eye was a sermon given by Bishop Dwayne Royster of Living Water UCC in Philadelphia. I saw so many friends Tweet about it that I had to look up the video and watch it.[1]

Bishop Royster shared the words of Howard Thurman who, over 65 years ago asked Christians to consider this question: What does your faith have to offer those whose backs are up against the wall?

What does Christianity have to offer to those who wake up each day in hell, trying to figure out how to survive one more day in a world where the deck is stacked against them? Because, as Royster said, “Our country is in deep moral crisis. The issues of race and economic disparity are threatening to tear us asunder each and every single day.”

I don’t know about you, but I feel like we are on a roller coaster lately – and mostly not a very fun one. The car we’re in seems to be veering off track and I’m not certain I trust that the safety mechanisms have been carefully checked. When the Supreme Court ruled just over a week ago that marriage equality had finally come to all fifty states, it was a rare moment of joy – but it was almost immediately tempered by the knowledge that many states and counties would fight the decision, the realization that backlash would be swift, and the recollection that  in many states (including ours) those who are LGBT may be able to get married, but they can still be fired for simply being who they are. We still have a long way to go.

The refrain that’s been rolling around in my head, keeping me somewhat centered, comes from a traditional U.S. American folk song:
            Heard the voice of Jesus say
            Come unto me, I am the way
            Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Hold on.[2]

Well, I got to wondering where that image comes from – keeping our hands on the plow. Turns out it comes from the ninth chapter of Luke. This is one of Jesus’s more difficult teachings. His friends were telling him, “We want to follow you,” and he told them, “Great! People who travel with me are despised. We have nowhere to sleep at night. Still want to come along? Come NOW. You don’t get to say goodbye to your family. It’s time to leave.”

We often want to paint Jesus as this sweet and gentle savior, but Jesus also has a harder, more demanding side. And the demand he makes here is pretty simple: “Keep your hand on the plow. Don’t look away. Keep looking ahead as you do the work. And, for God’s sake, HOLD ON.”

Here’s what I know about plowing: it’s one of the hardest parts of farming. In Jesus’s time, they would have had animals to help them as they dragged their plow through the hard clay soil. But even with the help of animals, plowing is incredibly exhausting and relentless. Why do it at all?

Well, you need to plow before you plant for several reasons. By turning up the soil, you destroy weeds that might impede growth. You stir up nutrients. You create breathing space for the new seeds.

Plowing is essentially disruptive, but the disruption is necessary for growth. It may seem a little backwards, but you have to disrupt the environment in order for growth to occur. You might get lucky and a few seeds may grow without plowing…but there won’t be many that grow and they won’t grow well. You need disruption to make it work.

It seems to me this is what’s happening right now. There’s a lot of serious disruption taking place. Terrible things that we really wish we could cover up or bury are being brought to the surface. It’s difficult work. Worse than being difficult, it’s dangerous. People are being hurt and killed as the earth is turned beneath us. It’s not pretty. We may want to look away. We may want to take a break. We may way to hand over the plow and ask if there’s another job we could do instead.

But Jesus encourages – no, COMMANDS – us to HOLD ON and keep our hand on the plow. Because without the difficult work of disruption, no real growth can come.

You may know another version of the song, popularized during the Civil Rights movement. “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Hold on.” When we are plowing, we have to keep our heads up. We have to keep our eyes fixed on where we’re headed. We have to squint into the sun and look ahead to the end of the row. That’s how we keep our lines straight – by focusing ahead.

Now some people have interpreted “don’t look back” as “don’t worry about what’s in the past.” Nothing could be further from the truth, I think. We absolutely have to understand our past. A big part of so many of our problems right now in our country is our failure to do the really hard work of turning the soil. That’s why we have a bunch of people who don’t understand why the Confederate Flag is so offensive. They have never been taught about the true horror of our shared history. We must all struggle to learn our history and teach it to our children. We cannot afford to bury the past any longer.

And as we carry that painful history inside of us, we keep our hand on the plow and our eyes on the prize and we keep putting one foot in front of the other. I have this image in my mind of God as the oxen pulling that plow. Just straining and working and never resting. Just pulling us relentlessly towards a world where all are given the respect they deserve as God’s beloved children, a world where there is enough for all, a world where generosity and hope and kindness and love rule.   God is pulling and we simply have to keep up and keep our hand on the plow.

Even this is not easy, of course. I am reminded of Moses – that great emancipator of our Holy Scriptures. He has been celebrated for millennia now as a human who was faithful and courageous and brave. He was all of those things.

And he was also a man who went off track from time to time. The passage we heard earlier this morning isn’t one of his shining moments. Moses, in the prime of his adult life, lets his rage get the best of him. Exhausted from witnessing the oppression and violence all around him, he strikes out in anger and kills an Egyptian who is abusing an enslaved Hebrew. Then, terrified that he will be caught and punished, he runs away and settles with the Midianites.

And then….forty long years later, when he is at the ripe age of 80 (80! Don’t think you’re off the hook if you’re past retirement age!), he is called back to Egypt. He took his hand off the plow for a good long while, but God is not done with him yet. The author of Exodus tells us, “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning.”

Moses took his hand off the plow, but God did not stop relentlessly dragging the world forward. God was there, working in the background, even as Moses rested – pulling the plow towards the end of the row, stirring up the ground, troubling the waters.

Bishop Royster said in his sermon last week, “We need to get back to believing that God will use us to do miracles that will change the damned world.” Because there are people living in hell each and every day and the world surely feels damned to them. He said, “The Bible doesn’t tell us to preach justice but to do justice. If all you’ve done is preach justice, you’ve not done much. Get out of your comfort zone. Get out of your pews and put your life on the line.”[3]

I fully believe the people who are supposed to change the damned world are seated in this room today. I’m not kidding. I don’t know what God may be calling you to do, but I fully believe that God is a-pulling that plow and Jesus is urging you to get your hand on it and keep your eyes on the prize.

Every single person who ever did a miracle and changed the world was a regular person before that happened. Two weeks ago, Bree Newsome was just one activist in a sea of activists. But then she put her hand on God’s plow and said, “This flag comes down today,” and the world was changed.[4]

Nicholas Winton, a British man who died this week at the age of 106, was nobody special.[5] For over 50 years, he lived a normal adult life – no one even knew about his past. And then, one day, his wife discovered a scrapbook in the attic. In it were the names of 669 children that Winton almost singlehandedly saved from certain death in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. He had never told her. He was uncomfortable until the day he died with the fame, failing to understand why people called him “Britain’s Schindler.” He was just an ordinary man who saw a problem and knew he had to do something to try and help. He put his hand on the plow and the world was changed.

I’m not telling you you have to singlehandedly change the world. Heck, I’m not telling you you have to do anything at all. But I do hear Jesus saying very clearly to you, to me, to all of us that if we want to be his followers we have to put our hand on the plow and hold on.

God is relentlessly pulling that plow towards freedom and new life….and our work is to get our hand on the plow and keep moving forward.  

[1] The sermon can be viewed here. The scripture reading begins at 1:15 and the sermon around 1:20.
[2] There are about a million different versions of this song. This one is the version that Mahalia Jackson made famous. Common titles for the song are, “Keep your hand on the plow,” “Hold on,” “Gospel plow,” and “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
[3] I am paraphrasing a bit as I didn’t have access to a transcript of the sermon.
[4] Here’s the video of Ms. Newsome taking down the flag.
[5] There are a lot of excellent pieces on Nicholas Winton. I found this one from the NYT to be very comprehensive