Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Silly Love Song (8/30/09)

A Silly Love Song
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 30th, 2009

Song of Songs 2:8-15

The Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) is about God’s love for Israel and Christ’s love for the church. I’ll show you:

How fair and pleasant you are,
O loved one, delectable maiden!
7You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
8I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
9and your kisses like the best wine
that goes down smoothly,
gliding over lips and teeth.

See? Obviously it is Christ’s love for the church. Case closed. Our Bible study is finished. Let us now take a cold shower and pray.

And you better hurry before Christ climbs your palm tree.

It is because this book was interpreted first as God’s love for Israel and then adopted by the Christians as Christ’s love for the church, that the Song of Songs made it into the Bible. The gatekeepers of the sacred canon would not have allowed this sexy text to make it past the censors if they thought it was just a silly love song.

I can imagine advocates for the Song of Songs saying to themselves, “Let’s see if we can get this book into the Bible. We’ll tell them it is about God’s love for Israel. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

So while I think that interpretation is a bit of a stretch, I am happy for it. Without it we might not have known this text.

I am pleased that the Song of Songs is in the Bible.

It is a just a silly love song.
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know.

It is secular love poetry, a fourth century BCE equivalent to a Harlequin Romance. It would be literature that would be sung at banquets by performers. It is entertainment.

It isn’t really spiritual literature. God is not even mentioned.

But because this secular and sexy song is in the Bible, the Church is forced to recognize however grudgingly that sexuality is spiritual. So the idea that the Song of Songs represents Christ’s love for the Church, or Divine love for humanity is not so far off. In a sense the church is saying that eros (or romantic love) is sacred.

That truth is important in a tradition that has often viewed sexuality as a threat or something to be controlled. Eros is Earthy. And Earthy is Sacred.

No one expressed that better than Walt Whitman. Whitman was preaching against the preachers who suggested that the flesh (the earthy, the sensual, the body) was not sacred. Those fleshly desires needed to be transcended for one to be godly. Not for Whitman. Whitman was the champion of the body, the here and now. This is from Song of Myself:

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me
is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am
touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of
my own body, or any part of it,

Like Whitman’s Song of Myself, the Song of Songs is about bodies and love of bodies:

I am my beloved’s,
and his desire is for me.
11Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;
12let us go out early to the vineyards,
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.

Their love is mutual and egalitarian. The woman initiates as does the man. Both initiate affection, express desire, and lavish praise on one another. This mutual, egalitarian, sex-positive voice is counter-cultural then as well as now.

To add a little scandal to the mix, it appears that the characters—the lovers—in the Song of Songs are not married. The “blossoming vineyards that the foxes are ruining” are our adolescent lovers, not married, and loving on the sly. A forbidden love.

The young woman has to sneak out at night to find her love.

I sought him, but did not find him;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
7Making their rounds in the city
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle,
those sentinels of the walls.

They risk their forbidden love amidst great danger.

Marvin Ellison, author of Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality, calls the Song of Songs a protest poem. He writes:

When this narrative is read critically through a justice lens, the Song of Songs appears to be not so much a “simple” love poem, but more a polemical protest song. This protest poem celebrates and even flaunts the moral beauty of a couple’s love because they stand in violation of prevailing cultural norms. P. 72

The forbidden love may have to do with ethnicity.

At the beginning of the Song the woman complains to the other maidens:

Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me.

Ellison goes on to say:

Womanist biblical scholar Renita J. Weems has carefully uncovered a hidden polemic with the Song. As an African-American woman, Weems has paid attention to the color imagery of this text and noticed how the female lover is portrayed as a dark-skinned, small-breasted woman. Her physical beauty is at odds with the prevailing cultural standards of her time. Therefore the Song is interested in highlighting more than the goodness of physicality and sexual pleasure, or even this woman’s boldness in expressing her sexual desire for her lover….the poet names as beautiful and right the love of two nonnormative lovers. As Weems contends, “They are two lovers whom society, for inscrutable reasons, sought to keep apart, perhaps because they were from different classes, from different ethnic backgrounds, or of a different color.” P. 72

Ellison concludes this point by saying:

This Song criticizes the dominant social order because of its sexual injustice. Sexual injustice is a tell-tale sign of moral dis-order more broadly construed. P. 73

The characters in the Song of Songs are heterosexual lovers. But those who advocate for sexual justice for all people regardless of sexual orientation find in the Song of Songs a resource for protest and resistance against sexual oppression. Marvin Ellison writes:

Here scripture, when read through a justice hermeneutic, offers a critique of tradition and “new eyes” to affirm on biblical grounds the beauty and moral integrity of love in unexpected places, including between interracial couples, people with disabilities, and same-sex couples. P. 73

The Song of Songs is more than just another silly love song. If Marvin Ellison and Renita Weems are right, it is a love song that celebrates the love of those who usually don’t have songs written for them. It is a song for the songless.

Sexual justice is a crucial aspect of social justice and of individual and social well-being.

Faith communities have been uneven regarding sexual justice. The inherited (and largely unexamined) ethic is that all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong and sinful.

This is hardly an ethic. It is simply a rule. It is based on heterosexism and a patriarchal definition of marriage. It says nothing of the quality of sexual activity within marriage including issues of power and consent, and it says nothing to the millions of people who are not married but (believe it or not) have sex.

There is no guidance for them from the church except be celibate or be silent.

Faith communities can and should do better.

What seems to be lost in the debate over gay marriage and gay ministers is the issue of sexual ethics for all people regardless of sexual orientation or marital status. Sexual ethics refers to theory and guidelines regarding when sexual behavior is good and when it is harmful.

Since I am nearing the end of the sermon, I am going to recommend four book titles and a web page. Just mentioning in a sermon that these resources exist might be helpful. I have read these four titles and recommend them even as the authors come from different perspectives.

The first is the book I mentioned earlier, Marvin Ellison, Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality.

Second, is Marie Fortune, Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us.

Third, Mary E. Hunt, Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship. And

Fourth, Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine.

The Fox book isn’t about sexual ethics in particular, but it is related.

The web page is Google “Religious Institute.” The full title is Religious Institute: Faithful Voices on Sexuality and Religion.

This website has a number of resources including a statement: Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. I joined a number of other religious professionals in endorsing this declaration. I will close with it in honor of our two non-normative, passionate, Divinely-kissed lovers in Song of Songs:

Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality. We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression, and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.

Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited. However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing, and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.

God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear, and respond to the suffering caused by violence against women and sexual minorities, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.

Faith communities must therefore be truth seeking, courageous, and just. We call for:

* Theological reflection that integrates the wisdom of excluded, often silenced peoples, and insights about sexuality from medicine, social science, the arts and humanities.

* Full inclusion of women and sexual minorities in congregational life, including their ordination and the blessing of same sex unions.

* Sexuality counseling and education throughout the lifespan from trained religious leaders.

* Support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denomination.

Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society. We call for:

* Lifelong, age appropriate sexuality education in schools, seminaries, and community settings.

* A faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STD prevention and treatment.

* Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice.

God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity. We, the undersigned, invite our colleagues and faith communities to join us in promoting sexual morality, justice, and healing.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Say "Yes" To What Is Within! (8/23/09 Qur'an Sunday)

Say “Yes” To What Is Within!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 23rd, 2009

O believers, the fast is ordained upon you, as it was ordained upon those who came before you—perhaps you will fear God—for a number of days. Whoever is sick among you or on a journey, then a number of other days. Upon those who can bear it, a penance: the feeding of a poor person. He who willingly proffers good, this would be better for him. To fast is better for you, if only you knew. The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Qur’an was sent down—right Guidance to mankind, and clear signs of Guidance and Distinction of truth from false-hood. Those among you who witness it, let him fast therein.
Surah al-Baqarah 2:182-5

Christ passed by a group of people who hurled insults at him, and he responded with blessings. He passed by another group who insulted him, and he responded likewise. One of his disciples asked, “Why is that the more they insult you, the more you bless them, as if inviting this upon yourself?” Christ said, “A Person can bring forth only what is within him.”
Tarif Khalidi, ed. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (London: Cambridge, 2001), p. 106.

Yesterday marked the first day of Ramadan. This is a month of fasting and worship for our Muslim sisters and brothers. For thirty days Muslims will fast during daylight hours. After the sun sets they will eat and socialize.

It is believed that during the month of Ramadan, on the 27th day of this month to be precise, that Muhammad received his first revelations. It is also during this month that God determines the course of the world for the coming year.

When I first heard that I had a visual of God in his study with his yearly planner, charts, newsprint, and markers as he plans the universe for the next year. A couple of hurricanes, maybe a pandemic, some pretty sunsets, and a bumper corn crop.

Or maybe God is She on the beach with her doodle pad wondering if she ought to so something nice and provide world peace this year or at least universal health care.

I thought it was fun to think of God using the month of Ramadan as a planning period for world events. With our modern consciousness the idea of gods and goddesses or even God with a big G planning things seems rather, well, antiquated. Things seem to take care of themselves.

The major consequence of modern science for religion was to put God in the unemployment line. The universe handles itself and there was nothing left for God to do. Nevertheless, it is fun to think of God out there planning things. I guess it provides some sort of comfort. Somebody has planned this mess. Perhaps that idea makes the mess bearable. Whether we find it all believable or not, religion is a tribute to human imagination.

During Ramadan, observers may spend more time than they usually do praying or reading the Qur’an. Or maybe they just feel guilt for not praying or reading the Qur’an as much as they think they should. This period of fasting is similar to Lent for Christians in that it is a time of spiritual and personal renewal. Observers are to avoid telling lies, being greedy, and gossip. Instead, they are to be kind, do well to the less fortunate, and so forth.

The idea is to be conscious about doing good and to avoid being mean. It would seem to be a swell idea to do good and avoid being mean all the time of course. But setting a time a part helps us to remember.

Here is an explanation of Ramadan from a woman in the United Kingdom. Her name is Arfana and she lives in Wrexham in the UK:

Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims all over the world and it's a very important month. We fast for 30 days - we can't eat after sunrise and then all day until after sunset. Prayers are most important at this time. It's a spiritual journey more than anything.

It is difficult not eating during the day especially in the UK as it's not a Muslim country and you still have to go about your day to day life, like going to work where your colleagues might be sitting having fish and chips for dinner! Whereas in a Muslim country all the shops would be closed during the day and it's easier, but it's still a challenging thing to do.

I work in Wrexham and my colleagues are fascinated by Ramadan! They ask lots of questions and think it must be a difficult thing to do, for anybody.

In Wrexham we all get together on Friday, which is a holy day, and break the fast together at the Mosque. Generally people in their own homes would invite each other round to break the fast together. It's a tradition to invite people to your house and break the fast together.

At the end of Ramadan comes Eid, which is a celebration of Ramadan, and it's when we all have a big feast.

Every year Ramadan starts 10 days earlier so it starts at a different time every year. Obviously it's harder when it's during the summer as the days are longer. We've had fasting over Christmas too which has been interesting.

Fasting is only observed by healthy individuals. They have to be of an age that they know what they're doing. Pregnant women or people who are unwell or on medication don't fast and children have to reach a certain age before they can fast.

Notice that in her explanation of Ramadan, she included no theological speculation. There was no mention of God. No reference to God planning the upcoming world events or Muhammad receiving the Qur’an. I am not saying she doesn’t believe in that. Whether the theology is important or not, she doesn’t mention it. What is important from what she says is what is done--30 days of fasting and all the perils and challenges associated with that. Then come the evening meals, celebrations, and socializing culminating with the big feast at the end of Ramadan. That is the important stuff.

Ramadan is a month long celebration of tradition and human connection. There is perhaps a theological mist behind it, but the real value is the party. If God is to be found, it is in the interaction. God is in the feast and in the fast.

One of the most important sayings of Jesus, or perhaps I should say a saying of Jesus that resonates with me is found in the Gospel of Luke. In response to the question of when folks should expect the kingdom of God, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” It could also be translated, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

I don’t know for sure whether that statement originated with Jesus or was placed on his lips by creative storytellers. Whatever the case, it represents a huge step in the evolution of God. In this one sentence of Jesus, God made a monumental shift. God, or the kingdom of God, is within you. This is in opposition to an external authority or reality out there in time or in space, or even outside of time and space.

Leo Tolstoy was so moved by that saying of Jesus that he wrote his famous, radical, too-true-for-us-to-handle book, and titled it The Kingdom of God is Within You. It is a book about Christian pacifism. His book was banned in his home country of Russia. In it he claimed that all war and violence was against the will of Christ. If humanity was going to survive it would require us to take Christ’s message, "turn the other cheek," to heart and to live it. The kingdom of God is realized as people of conscience refuse to cooperate with all forms of violence and oppression.

Peace arises from within the individual, that is, the Christ within.

A new book I recommend is Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. It is a fascinating book that traces the development of the concept of God as human consciousness changes. He shows how “God” has evolved throughout our religious past and into the present day. This is a very important book regarding how we think about God and how we use God to control our surroundings including other people.

You can tell a lot about a person by the God they believe in. For example a God…

• who desires you to kill in his name,
• who sends the unbelievers to hell,
• who makes you recite a list of 160 commandments before breakfast,
• who sends tornadoes to Minneapolis as punishment on the Lutherans for welcoming gays,
• who says Jesus was tortured on the cross because you are really, really bad,

is not God or reality at all. It does say a lot about those who invent that God and evangelize for that God.

We are no better than the God we invent for ourselves.

The kingdom of God is within you.

Just in case there might be one person who has not heard this Cherokee fable, I will share it with all of you.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather:

"Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

The kingdom of God is within you. What wolf--what God—will we feed?

Religious celebrations, like Ramadan, give us an opportunity to be conscious about the God we feed.

Even for those of us who are not Muslim, yet out of respect for Muslims, Ramadan can be a month of observance. This is a good thirty day period to learn about the Muslim faith, to make connections with our Muslim neighbors, to search for common ground, and to do things that make for peace. An act as simple as taking a moment of silent meditation and offering it as a gift to our Muslim sisters and brothers is a gift of peacefulness.

Compassion, creativity, joy, peacefulness--the kingdom of God--is within us and among us.

That for me is a God I can believe in.