Sunday, August 23, 2015

“What does the Second Testament say about homosexuality?”

Sunday August 23, 2015 
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Last week we explored what the First Testament of our Bible has to say about same-sex relationships. If you missed it, you can always catch up on past sermons on our website. This week, we’re continuing on into the Second Testament and seeing, specifically, what we can find there about sexual orientation.

So, in the entirety of the Bible there are six “clobber passages”[1] – passages that have been used to beat up on people who are gay, lesbian and, and bisexual. We’re going to look at the three of those that are in the Second Testament today, but before we do, I want us to notice something: the three clobber passages in the Second Testament are found in the Epistles. None of them are in the Gospels. I’ve heard people say, “Jesus never says anything about homosexuality,” and that’s kind of true. It’s true that he doesn’t say anything negative about homosexuality. But there is that one time when he meets a man who seems to be gay….and, well, we’ll get to that in a few minutes.

First, though, a word about Jesus and the Bible. Jesus obviously didn’t have the Bible as we have it today. But he did have the First Testament. Those were his foundational stories. He knew them, loved them, taught them. I think we can learn a lot about how we are supposed to interact with the Bible by watching Jesus interact with his Bible. Jeff Miner and Tyler Connolley who wrote this amazing book, The Children are Free, note that Jesus approached the Bible with common-sense and compassion.

Common-sense: you can see this in Mark 7.[2] By the way, I’m going to be referring to so many tidbits of scripture this morning that I put the references in the bulletin for you. In Mark 7, some leaders were cranky because they noticed Jesus’s disciples eating without washing their hands first. Now, we’re thinking about germs, but this was, oh, a few thousand years before people knew about germs, so they were simply noting that it was against the religious laws to eat without washing your hands first. Jesus fires back, saying, essentially, that what you eat can’t damage your soul. Instead, it’s all the ickiness we have inside of us – our propensity to sin – that can damage our spirits. This is very practical: food goes into your stomach and then exits your body. It doesn’t change your soul, says Jesus. He’s a common-sense kind of guy when it comes to interpreting the Bible.

Compassion: let’s take a look at Matthew 12. Again, religious leaders notice that Jesus’s disciples aren’t following the rules. They are picking grain on the Sabbath, which is a big no-no. Jesus uses a couple of passages from his holy texts to argue with them, essentially saying, “Look, when people are hungry, they need to eat.” Feeding hungry bellies trumps doing things to the letter of the law. He’s practical. He’s compassionate.

So when we approach our texts, I like to think that we should strive to be like Jesus. Practical and compassionate.

Let’s begin by taking a look at those three clobber passages in the Second Testament. Romans 1: 25-27 is similar to the things we read in Leviticus last week. It’s a laundry list of “things to avoid” because “you don’t want to be like those other people over there.” At first glance, this appears to be a pretty straight-forward condemnation of people who are gay and lesbian: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”

But it’s worth noting that those statements are just one part of a very carefully laid out progression of problems that Paul is defining. Miner and Connolley note that Paul is specifically saying this: the problem is people who ignore God, start worshiping idols, care more about themselves and their bodies and “earthly” things than God, let their own lust and passion control their lives – making decisions based entirely on their sexual desires, and turned into people who were “full of every kind of wickedness”…Paul goes into a long list there including murder, envy, gossip. You can read the rest in your pew Bible if you want.

So a lot of scholars agree: this is not about a sweet 16 year old girl who wants to ask another girl to prom; or a 53-year-old man who’s been in a committed partnership with another man and decides to get married after many years together; or about any of the scores of gay and lesbian people who do the same boring stuff straight people do: like go to the grocery store, argue over the bills, and worry about their kids on the first day of school.  

This is about people who are losing control of their lives because they turn away from God, worship idols, and are consumed by pursuing their own pleasure at any cost. They care more about their own pleasure than anything else. They’ve made it into a God. That’s not okay, Paul says. This is a very specific condemnation and simply does not apply to most gay and lesbian people in our world today.

There are, of course, ways of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual that are sinful. Being so self-centered that you care about nothing but your own pleasure is a problem. But it’s a problem some straight people have, too. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Next up, we’ve got two very similar “sin lists” in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1:10. These two lists vary a lot in different translations. In the NRSV the Corinthians passage includes “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers,” and the Timothy passage includes “murderers, perjurers, liars, slave traders, fornicators, sodomites,” and more.

The reason the English translations vary so wildly is this: we mostly have no idea what some of these words mean.

One of them is malakoi which literally means “soft” in Greek.[3] Remembering that gender norms were clearly defined in their culture, this was basically like calling a man girly or effeminate. And what they meant by that (get ready for this ladies) was that the man was weak, lazy, cowardly, and struggled with self-control. Hmm. But it doesn’t really have anything to do with a man’s sexual orientation. It’s just about his behavior and general character.

The other word is arsenkoitai. And this one is really a mystery. Some people even think Paul made it up, because it doesn’t seem to exist before he uses it in 1 Corinthians. It’s a compound word: male and bed. So something like male-bedders. Some have interpreted that to mean gay men. But that’s not so clear-cut. After all, Miner and Connolley point out that if you were studying the world lady-killer in the future you might not understand it. Does it mean someone who kills ladies? Ladies who kill other people? You’d be very surprised to discover it actually means a man who is very popular with ladies. We really just don’t know what male-bedder means. We’re guessing. What we do know is that it often gets listed with economic sins in lists – for example, in 1 Timothy it comes between prostitution and kidnapping/slave-trading. So it likely has something to do with a sex act that is rooted in economic exploitation. That’s about all we can gather.

And that’s it for the clobber passages. But there are a couple of potentially-affirming passages in the Second Testament. First, the story of Philip and the man from Ethiopia who was a eunuch found in Acts 8.[4] Philip was commanded to go to a road outside of Jerusalem. Once he got there, he ran into a man from Ethiopia who was also a eunuch. The two studied the Bible together and then the nameless man asked to be baptized and Philip baptized him without hesitation.

This man was suspicious on three levels. He was alone on a wilderness road where travelers were often ambushed. He was a foreigner. And he was a eunuch.  We know that eunuch meant several things at that time. Jesus himself refers to three categories in Matthew 19: those who were born eunuchs, those who were made eunuchs by others, and those who made themselves into eunuchs for the glory of God. Eunuchs were often made into high court officials – just like the man on the road that Philip encountered. They were able to have proximity to the queen because they could be trusted to have no desire or ability to procreate with the queen. So some who were “born eunuchs” were likely men who seemed to have no interest in women. This is not to say that all eunuchs were gay, but it is to say that eunuchs were strongly associated with homosexuality. No matter to Philip. He talks to the man, teaches him, prays with him, baptizes them. No problem.

Finally, I told you earlier that Jesus didn’t say anything negative about homosexuality…but he did meet and help a man who seems to be gay. That’s the passage Craig read earlier from Matthew 8, the story of the Roman soldier who came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant.[5] That word “servant” is pais in Greek has three possible meanings: 1) boy or son, 2) servant or slave, 3) male lover. Miner and Connolley note in Luke’s version, the sick person is also referred to as entimos duolos – honored servant. Further, the soldier uses the word doulos to refer to his other servants. So their conclusion is that this is not just any boy, but a young man who is a unique and special kind of servant. He’s not like the other servants. He’s different.

It would have been common in their culture for adult homosexual men to acquire partners the same way heterosexual men did – by purchasing them. Heterosexual men essentially bought wives. Homosexual men had the option of buying men (usually younger men) for their lovers. Of course, this opens up all kinds issues for us in the 21st century because we frown upon buying young people as sexual partners, regardless of whether the relationship is hetero- or homosexual. It’s entirely possible, though, to imagine a scenario where the Roman soldier and his pais were in a committed and fulfilling relationship – just as may have happened with young women who were sold as brides.

And this soldier certainly seems to care deeply for his pais. He cares enough to come to Jesus, an outsider, and ask for help. All of the other stories in the Gospels are about Jesus healing the person who asks for help or their family members – we don’t have any other stories about Jesus being asked to heal a servant. Perhaps this story is also about family and about the love shared between two men who had no other way to be family in their culture.

Jesus responds to the Roman solider in a way that is pretty unsurprising, given what we know about the type of person Jesus was. He lived his life guided by the same values that he used for Biblical interpretation. He was practical – if someone is dying and you can help, you help. You don’t waste time talking about their sexual orientation. And he was compassionate – he could see that the Roman soldier cared deeply about his pais. He didn’t have to ask a bunch of questions about the nature of their relationship. Instead, he showed compassion on this man who had come seeking help. He did what was asked. He healed.

And I think Jesus offers to do the same thing for the Church and our world today. In the midst of arguments that have gone on in churches for decades now, Jesus reaches out to us and models a way of common-sense and compassion. He calls upon us to pay attention to the big picture and to the core values of our faith – love, hope, kindness, justice, mercy, grace, new life. That’s what really matters. That’s who we are called to be as followers of Christ. And so, we follow our model, Jesus – who reached out in love, again and again, freely giving of himself to all he encountered and standing up for those who were marginalized. Thanks be to God for words of healing and hope in our Holy Scriptures.

[1] I borrowed this phrase from Jeff Miner and Tyler Connolley’s book The Children are Free, but have also seen it used several other places.
[2] Interpretation for Mark 7 and Matthew 12 (next paragraph) comes from Miner and Connolley.
[3][3] Info about malakoi and aresenkoatai from Miner/Connolley and Adam Phillips.
[4] Historical background information on Acts 8 from Miner/Connolley.
[5] Historical background on Matthew 8 from Miner/Connolley.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

“What does the First Testament say about homosexuality?”

Sunday August 16, 2015 
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

We’ve probably all been there. You’re at the family reunion, or the company picnic, or out to dinner with a new friend and the topic of marriage equality or Caitlyn Jenner comes up. Someone – a cousin, a friend, your boss – says, “Well, it’s not really for me to decide. God’s already decided. It’s very clear in the Bible. Homosexuality (or being transgender) is wrong.”

It’s always hard to know how to handle this, yes? Partially because we don’t want to get into it. Partially because we’re tired of arguing. But also – sometimes – because we aren’t as well-versed in what the Bible says as we’d like to be.

For the next two weeks, we are going to examine what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. This week, we’ll focus on the First Testament and next week we’ll check out the Second. Our final sermon in this three-week series will explore what the Bible has to say about gender identity.

So…let’s jump right in. I should note up front that most of what I’m sharing with you today I learned from this fabulous (and very short) book, The Children are Free by Jeff Miner and Tyler Connoley. Jonathan, can you please read the Genesis passage for us?

***Genesis 19:1-8 is read aloud.***

Ah, good ol’ Sodom and Gormorrah. It’s such a deeply disturbing passage…though not for many of the reasons we’ve been taught. For many, many years this story has been used to beat up on people who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual because it “clearly states” that homosexuality is a sin.

Except, of course. It doesn’t. Not really.

In this story, Abraham’s nephew, Lot moved to the big city of Sodom. God Almighty is mad at the people there and wants to destroy them so God sends incognito angels into the city on a recon mission to investigate.  

Lot sees the two angels and greets them warmly, inviting them to his home for the night. This was common practice in the ancient near east – it was considered the norm to invite strangers into your home because there were no hotels and it was unsafe to sleep in the city square. The two man-angels come to Lot’s home and they settle in for the night. Suddenly, a mob of angry people is at the door. The author of Genesis notes that it is every single man in the city – young and old. Which is interesting because if this is supposed to be a story about homosexuality, it seems highly unlikely that EVERY male person in a large city would be gay, right?[1] 

The angry mob demands that the man-angels be sent outside so the crowd can “know them” which is Biblical code language for have sexual relations with them. Lot, being the fine upstanding gentleman that he is, refuses. Instead, he offers up his two virgin daughters to the angry crowd. My study Bible says that Lot’s solution was “less than exemplary.”[2] I tend to think that’s a bit of an understatement. Offering your two daughters to an angry crowd so they can be raped is so disturbing, I’m not even sure what to call it except horrifying and evil. Through a twist of magic, just as the angry mob is about to break down the door, the man-angels intervene and no one is hurt.

It seems pretty clear to me that this scene at Lot’s door is not about sex or sexuality at all. It is about fear and what happens when people are caught up in mob mentality. Rape is not about sex. It’s about power, control, and humiliating another human being. That seems to be exactly what the mob wants. They are afraid of these strangers in their midst and they want to exert their authority by victimizing them.[3]

Other Biblical authors seemed to understand this. Sodom is mentioned another 20 times in the Bible and no where – not once – is the “sin of Sodom” understood to be homosexuality.[4] Instead, it’s that they were prosperous, inhospitable, full of pride, and haughty. They did not help those who were needy. They cared only for themselves. The sin of Sodom was violence rooted in fear and seeking to humiliate and control another. It has nothing to do with homosexuality at all.

Jonathan, can you please read the Leviticus passage for us?

****Leviticus 18:1-5, 22 is read aloud.****

Here is a passage where context means everything. Leviticus is, in general, a rulebook for living. As the Israelites were becoming a more solidified cultural group, they needed to be “set apart” from the other tribes and people around them. You can see this clearly in the beginning of the passage we just heard: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do in as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan.” And then we’re off into this giant list of all the things the Canaanites do that are bad news.

One of the things listed looks like it might be a condemnation of homosexuality. But homosexuality as we know it didn’t exist in Canaanite culture.[5] This was a culture were gender norms were rigid. Women did certain things and men did others. Everyone had to be paired up with someone from the opposite gender for society to function properly. These people would have gone bonkers over Target re-doing their toy aisles! They would not have understood a consensual, mutual partnership between two people of the same gender.

Instead, what they are likely referring to here is related to sexual acts that happened as a part of religious ceremonies. The Canaanite people, like many others, used sex rituals as a part of their faith practices.[6] We’re talking about sex rites, cultic temple prostitution, that kind of thing. I won’t go into details. But there were certainly men involved in sex rituals with other men and women with women. Those are the types of sexuality being condemned here, not homosexuality as we know it.

There is another very similar reference to these sex rituals in Leviticus 20:13. And that’s it. There are over 600,000 words in the First Testament, but that’s all the First Testament says that could potentially be construed as a condemnation of same-sex relationships. Let’s move on two examining two stories that have been interpreted as affirming same-sex love.

Jonathan, please read us that passage from Ruth.

****Ruth 1:1-9, 16-17 is read aloud.****

Again, context really matters. In order to understand the story of Ruth and Naomi, we have to understand the way families worked in the ancient near east. Women could not own property. They did not ever live alone or without men. They were generally considered the property and responsibility of their fathers until the married, at which time they became the property of their husbands. Side note: this is why I always scratch my head when I hear women living in the 21st century say they want us to have “Biblical marriage” now. No, thanks.

If a woman’s male protector died, she was extremely vulnerable. That’s why there are so many Biblical imperatives to care for the widows and the orphans. So when Orpah follows Naomi’s advice and decides to go back to her own people, she’s not being mean – she’s just being reasonable. The one who is wildly unreasonable is Ruth. Her decision to stay with Naomi makes no sense at all. Miner and Connolley say the only way we can understand her radical act is to know that it is motivated by love.[7]

Those words that Ruth says to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you…where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and my God your God.” Those words have been read at heterosexual wedding ceremonies for centuries.[8] They are words of devotion, spoken in love. They are vows of a lifelong commitment and covenant rooted in love.

Now you may be thinking, “Wait, doesn’t Ruth get married later?” Yes, she does. Interestingly, the Bible says nothing about her loving Boaz, her new husband. And Naomi and Ruth’s relationship remains central to the story. In fact, when Ruth gives birth to a son, the author describes the child as Naomi’s son.[9] Now do we know if it was a sexual relationship? No, we don’t. Does it matter? Not really. What does matter, is that, clearly, these two women continued to live in a loving partnership, even after Boaz came on the scene.

And…speaking of that son born to Ruth and Naomi and Boaz. He was named Obed. He was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. So…speaking of David….  

****1 Samuel 18:1-4 and 2 Samuel 1:25-26 are read aloud.****

So these are stories from David’s youth – back before he was King. And when he was a younger man, he had a complicated relationship with King Saul. Saul eventually died in battle and David was his successor. Along the time, David developed an intense relationship with Saul’s son, Jonathan, and also married Jonathan’s sister, Michal.

In Miner and Connolley’s book, they go into more details about the relationship between David and Jonathan than we have time for this morning.[10] I want to highlight just a couple of things from their relationship, which spans vast portions of 1 Samuel. First, we just heard the story of their first meeting. We are told that their souls were bound together and that Jonathan loved David “as his own soul.” And Jonathan gives David prized possessions – including the clothes off his back, his armor, his weapons. That’s a pretty intense first meeting. If this meeting had happened between David and Michal or one of Saul’s other daughters we would almost certainly assume it was romantic in nature.[11]

If you continue reading into 1 Samuel 20 you’ll find stories of Jonathan and his father getting into an argument over Jonathan’s relationship with David. Saul is displeased and thinks the relationship is shameful. When Saul tries to kill David, Jonathan is the one who warns David to protect him. The two pledge their eternal love to one another, kissing and weeping at their last meeting. And then, in 2 Samuel, we hear a song David sang when Jonathan was killed in battle, “Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan. Greatly beloved you were to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

Again, if David acted this way towards one of Saul’s daughters, we would automatically see it as a romantic and sexual relationship. Why not do the same for these two men, who were clearly devoted to one another, even putting themselves at risk to care for each other? Now, some will say, “But David was married! In fact, he was kind of a womanizer!” True. Trust me, we don’t have time today to talk about King David’s treatment of the women in his life. But, this isn’t a compelling argument. Plenty of gay men are married. Or perhaps David was bisexual? Just because he loved a man certainly doesn’t mean he couldn’t have also loved women.

Whew. And there you have it. What the First Testament of the Bible has to say about homosexuality, in a nutshell. Next week we’ll take a trip through the Second Testament. Thanks be to God for Biblical scholars who help us analyze and understand our sacred texts. And thanks be to God who is still-speaking, even through words that we previously thought were hateful. The Good News is still alive. Amen.

[1] Miner and Connoley. The Children are Free, 3.
[2] HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible.
[3] See also Miner and Connoley, 4-5.
[4] Ibid, 5.
[5] Ibid., 12.
[6] Ibid., 11-12.
[7] Ibid., 30.
[8] Ibid., 31.
[9] Ibid., 30-31.
[10] Ibid., 33-39.
[11] Ibid., 34.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

“Praying the Song”

Song of Songs 8: 1-7
Sunday August 9, 2015 
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

I’d like to begin this morning by sharing with you a long-ish except from Stephanie Paulsell’s commentary on the Song of Songs. It’s so darn good, the way she says it, I want you to hear it in her words:
Last year I met a woman who told me a story about the Song of Songs that I will never forget. Her husband had served on a submarine in the U.S. Navy during the 1970s. Family members were able to send messages to the sailors, but the messages could be no more than eight words long. A Bible verse, though, counted as only one word, so the loved ones on shore filled their messages with them.

“All the wives and girlfriends,” she old me, “loved the Song of Songs.” They would send messages like this: SoS 1:2  - and the beloved, deep below the surface of the ocean, would look up Song 1:2 in the Bible. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” he would read. Or SoS 4:7 – “you are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Or SoS 8:7, a message to a beloved submerged beneath miles of water – “many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”

Those women flung the words of the Song into the sea like a life-line, where they entered the submarine like a secret code. Coiled within these SOSs were so many prayers: “I miss you. God be with you. Please come home to me.” Bent over his Bible like a scholar, a sailor would search the Song for his beloved’s voice. Together, they crossed the miles of water between them on the bridge of the Song.

The lovers in the Song invite us into a different way of living. God may not be mentioned by name, but the Spirit of the One we call “Love” is woven into the very fabric of the Song. When we allow ourselves to drink deeply from the richness of this text, we find ourselves invited to slow down, open our senses, and spend time enjoying the beauty around us. We are invited to make ourselves vulnerable…to those we love, to ourselves, and to God.

I confess to you that I have never been one of those people who has vast (well, or even tiny) bits of scripture memorized. But I have always envied people who do. I want to take the Bible into me and knit it into my very soul, so that the wisdom in our Holy Book can be available to me in my times of need.

I trust some of you saw the video of social activist Bree Newsome scaling the flag pole in front of the capitol building in South Carolina in June to remove the Confederate Flag. After she descended and was placed in handcuffs, the police officers walked her away from the scene. As she walked, you could hear her reciting the words of the 23rd Psalm with a clear and confident voice.

There are so many ways to come to the Biblical text. For many of us, we come at it with an analytical lens. We ask all the questions – Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Some were taught to memorize bits of scripture at an early age and we either loved or hated this practice. We’ve learned to use the Bible in our defense – to help explain our opinions to another person who might not agree with us. We’ve learned to use the Holy Book as advice – treating is as a field guide for life or a Magic 8 ball.

This morning, I want to teach and practice an ancient way of engaging the text called lectio divina – in Latin that means “divine reading.” It is a way of aligning ourselves with a small nugget of scripture without analyzing or memorizing.

Lectio divina has its roots in the 3rd century with Origen, who believed Scripture was, itself, a sacrament. Origin believed that the Word (Christ) was inherently present inside all of our Holy texts. God actually lives inside these words and any practice of reading them should primarily be about seeking communion with God.

Over the centuries, a four-fold pattern for lectio divina has emerged.  The four parts are printed in your bulletin – you might want to jot down a few notes on each of them as I describe them. I am going to tell you a bit about each step and then we are going practice together. I should note that there is no one “right” way to do lectio divina. I’ve personally been taught it at least 10 different ways.

First is Lectio – reading the text. Before we read, we prepare ourselves. We sit in silence for a few moments and allow ourselves to focus our energy and attention here. We let go of other things – put the to-do list on pause. Saying those words from Psalm 46 – “Be still and know that I am God.” – can be a simple way to focus our attention. Once we have quieted ourselves, we listen to the text. Since we’re doing this in community today, we will hear the text twice in two different voices. I’ll read first and I need a volunteer to read the second time through. As you listen, try not to analyze. Just listen and be still. Lectio divina has been likened to “feasting on the Word” and the reading portion is like taking a little bite.

The second part of the process is Meditatio – meditation. This is where we chew the morsel of text. Staying still, seek a connection with the Holy, and allow yourself to be open to the movement of the Spirit. Allow the Spirit to reveal to you a word or phrase or image from the text that stands out. And if nothing in particular comes to you, don’t stress. It doesn’t always work that way. We will hear the text read a third time in another voice. Can I please have a volunteer?

The third step is Oratio – prayer. This is where we savor the feast that has been prepared for us. There are several different ways to do this, of course.  You might want to look at the text and pray the words – silently or aloud. You might want to continue to sit with the word, phrase, or image that the Spirit placed in front of you. You may simply want to see how the text relates to your own prayers of the moment – the things happening in your life or the world around you.

Finally, we arrive at the fourth step of Contemplatio – contemplation. This is where we digest the holy food, making it a part of our body and gathering strength and nutrients for our daily living. You are invited to simply enjoy the presence of God in silence and to contemplate any response you feel welling up inside you. Perhaps you are aware of an action to which you are called as a result of your practice.  

Okay – I invite you to make yourselves comfortable in your seat. Let’s have our two readers come up to the front so they can use the microphone when the time is right. I will guide us through the process, so don’t be worried if you still don’t know what you’re doing. The text is printed there on your insert – Song of Songs 8: 6-7.

Let’s begin by centering ourselves and being still. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Silence is kept.)

Caela reads text one time.
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;  for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”
(Silence is kept.)
Reader #2 reads the text a second time.
You are invited to meditate on the text, remaining open and willing for the Spirit to illuminate a particular word, phrase, or image that speaks to you this day.
Reader #3 reads the text.
(Silence is kept.)
This is the time for prayer and savoring the text. You may want to pray the text, which is written in front of you – either silently or aloud. If a word, phrase, or image was illuminated for you, you might want to hold it in prayer. You may also want to connect the text to your other prayers for this particular day.
(Silence is kept.)
We’ve reached the final stage – contemplation. Simply rest in God’s presence. Digesting the holy food you’ve received and allowing what you’ve discovered today to become a part of you. You may find that you begin to think about specific ways this time with God calls you into new acts or tasks.
(Silence is kept.)
Now that you’ve had a chance to experience lectio divina, I hope you will find it useful the next time you want to sit with the Bible but aren’t quite sure what to do.
As I’ve been pondering the life and death of Michael Brown this week, I can’t help but think of those who went before him and the others who have died in the past year because of the sins that plague our society – people who were entire worlds to their parents, children, friends, lovers. We know that the Holy Scriptures have been used to offer comfort to those who mourn and to encourage those who struggle for justice to continue the difficult work of making all things new. At times, the pain of living in a world so fractured by sin is painful. It is my hope that you might be able to feast on the Holy Word in your times of personal devotion – to be fed by God and be changed by our Holy Text.

On your bulletin insert, I’ve included several other passages to get you started. All you need to do is find a place for quiet and move through the four stages of lectio divina on your own. Thanks be to God for the gift of words that illumine, accompany, and sustain us for all our days. Amen. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

“The Truth(s) About Love”

Song of Songs 3:1-5
Sunday August 2, 2015 
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Author Glennon Melton blogs at and is the author of Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. She’s also a part of the United Church of Christ and often writes about her experiences at her church in Florida.

Back in 2014, Melton wrote a post on her blog called “The Lie and the Truth About Marriage.”[1] The lie is that marriage is an easy five-step process that begins with meeting “the one,” culminates in a wedding (a.k.a. “the finish line”) and ends in “happily ever after.”

Melton contrasts this with the way it has worked in her own life, which she describes in a 21 step process, beginning with “meeting a special one” and moving into a wedding (which is actually just the starting line). Along the way, she describes the panic that sets in when she began to realize that the butterfly feelings were gone and that marriage isn’t just happily ever after, after all.

Flummoxed, she tries to see if there’s some way to get out of marriage, only to discover that’s also a lot of hard work. So she resolves to ask for help – reading books, talking to counselors, talking to her partner, listening to wise friends. Eventually, she discovers this: REAL LOVE IS NOT A FLUTTERY FEELING, IT’S NOT BUTTERFLIES. It’s not pink. It’s not glittery. It’s not fluffy. It’s not even all that exciting, on the surface. Love looks like work. It’s utterly intimidating and exhausting. REAL LOVE IS A DAILY DECISION TO GET TO WORK. LOVE IS WORK DONE BY TIRED, HOPEFUL, ORDINARY FOLKS.”

We all have different experiences of being in love. And here I’m not just talking about the romantic love shared between people. I also mean loving our parents, our children, our friends, our siblings. Some experiences of being in relationship are easier than others, but at some time or another, any long-term relationship is going to have some challenges. Unfortunately, since we often don’t talk about our challenges publicly, many people think they are doing something wrong when they first run into a rough patch. Please note: there is a difference between a rough patch and emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. If you’re in a difficult relationship and if you’re not sure if it’s regular ups-and-downs or something more serious, please come and talk to me or someone else you trust.

The lovers in the Song of Songs are in an idyllic world. They don’t seem to have jobs or bills to worry about. There are no middle-of-the-night wakings to feed babies or change diapers. No one discovers they are sick or has medical bills hanging over their head. No one loses their job or gets kicked out of the house by mom and dad. There is ample time for singing songs of love in a beautiful, peaceful setting. It seems a bit like paradise.

And, yet, even in this seemingly-perfect world, the lovers do run into difficulties. There are several middle-of-the-night sequences where the woman is looking for the man and cannot find him. The man comes to her door and knocks, but by the time she gets up to answer, he is gone, and she is bereft. On more than one occasion, she takes to the streets in the middle of the night, looking for her love. This is no small act. A woman, alone, on the city streets at night was a very risky thing in her world. In fact, in one of the instances, the sentinels of the city actually beat her and strip away some of her clothing. In seeking love, she is wounded.

Love is not always safe.

In other instances, the lovers show us how mysterious and challenging love can be. Even for two people who are so devoted to one another, so filled with mutual respect and adoration, there are still problems. Harvard biblical scholar Stephanie Paulsell notes that as intimate as they are, the lovers sometimes question each other: Who are you? Where are you? Why can’t I find you? Paulsell explains, “No matter how intimate we are with one another, no matter how well we are acquainted with every inch of our beloved’s skin, we remain mysteries to one another.”[2]

There is no way to ever know another human being 100%. In fact, there may not even be a way to ever know ourselves 100%. We always run the risk of being surprised – in wonderful and horrifying ways – both by our own actions and the actions of those we love.

Loves is a beautiful thing…but it can also be risky. We can get hurt. The actions of someone we thought we really understood can surprise and shock us. The very people we trust can suddenly turn on us and be filled with anger and hate. And even when a relationship is working, we are still at risk. We can lose the ones we love. And it’s not fair. It truly isn’t. It’s a part of being human….this loving and risking pain.

Loving God is also hard work. I feel like everything Glennon Melton said about marriage could easily be translated into the Christian life. The easy version is that you find Jesus, fall in love with Jesus, give your life over to Christ (a.k.a. “cross the finish line”) and live happily ever after in a glowing halo of godly love and wisdom.

The reality, of course, is usually quite different. Many of us are born into the Christian faith and spend our lives coming closer to God and then further away. We go through long periods where we hardly think about Jesus at all. We get mad at God or annoyed with God. We ask questions and find no answers. We seek God with all our heart, stumbling through the streets to find God in the middle of the night and feel like God is elusive….nowhere to be found.

Loving God is a beautiful thing…but it can also be risky. We can get hurt. We think we understand who God is and how God works…only to discover we’ve got it all wrong. We call out to God for help…only to feel like our prayers are unheard. We lose our faith, all the while watching others who seem to have it all figured out. And it’s not fair. It truly isn’t. It’s a part of being human…this loving God and risking pain.

And then there’s the small point of how difficult it is to be in relationship with a person like Jesus. Some of the things he says make no sense. And then some of the things he says make perfect sense…only we don’t really want to hear them.

When he says to sell everything and follow him? That’s easy enough to understand, but harder to do. When he explains that the Realm of God is a place where the last are first, the lost are found, and the least are treated like royalty? Easy enough to understand, but hard to believe. When he walks with purpose towards sudden death and encourages us to take up our own cross and follow him? It’s very clear what he’s asking us to do, but, boy howdy, we don’t much want to do it.

Loving Jesus is a beautiful thing…but it can also be risky.

You know, we like to say that God is love. And when we say that, I think we often mean the cuddly, warm-fuzzy, beautiful, easy parts of love. The fairy tale.

But just as love is beautiful and God is beautiful….love is also hard and scary and risky. And God is also all of those things. We could spend an entire lifetime trying to live into a fuller love of God and still feel a little lost at sea. It’s hard work to love another human – flesh and blood that we can see, and ask questions of, and talk to face-to-face. It’s a whole other level of hard to love God – this amorphous spirit that can never fully be known, the One who comes to us in conflicting stories, the One who confounded our ancestors and confounds us still today.

And so, my friends, I want to say this to you today: thank you for staying in the game. Thank you for continuing to reach out in love to your friends, neighbors, enemies, and God. Loving is hard work. In a world where it is truly counter-cultural at times to continue this lifelong struggle to be in relationship with God, I give thanks that you haven’t given up.

I truly do believe that God is reaching out to us in love – even now, even here. When we throw a tantrum, when we cry tears of frustration, when we walk away from God for years or decades, God is still there, reaching out to us in love. Isn’t that astounding? I think Brother Paul had it right about at least one thing: There is nothing we can do that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Wow. Amen.