Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Beloved Calls - Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Every generation since the beginning of recorded human history has had its love songs. You might have a favorite and I might have mine. It’s likely that our differences of generation will influence our choices. Our scripture reading this morning is itself a love song, or at least a small portion of one of the great epic love songs ever written.

As I was thinking about this song, a tune from my teen years came to mind. It’s one of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles hits, and I think it fits the moment. The first stanza goes like this: 
You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs

I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you.
Yes, what’s wrong with singing silly love songs? 

There’s another song from those years that also speaks of love, but in a somewhat different way than McCartney’s song. And it goes like this: 
What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some but for everyone

So, as McCartney so profoundly puts it: “Love isn’t silly at all.”  No, everyone needs to experience a bit of love. For as Paul put it: “Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Loving our Aging Selves

Like many mainline pastors I have in my congregation a goodly number of older persons. Many have children my age, so they could be a parent to me. I've not reached old age yet, but having reached my late fifties, I am becoming more cognizant of my own aging self. I'm not as young as I used to be! My hair is gray, my joints stiffen up, and the flesh isn't nearly as supple as before. By the world's standards of beauty, I'm past my prime. We can try to stave off aging, but it will eventually catch up with us, whether we're ready for it or not. As I wrestle with my own aging, I must also be attuned to my aging congregants, quite a number of whom are in their 80s. I'm amazed at times how vibrant some of them are. They keep on going. They stay active. But time is not on their side. 

While I've not finished the book yet, so this isn't a book review, I have found Frits de Lange's book Loving Later Life: An Ethics of Aging(Eerdmans, 2015) to be an incredibly enlightening read. I will be reviewing it soon as I'm almost done with it, but I wanted to share an important word that the spoke to me. That word is -- if I am to love the elderly, especially the frail elderly (what he calls the 4th age), then I must love my own aging self. He sets up the whole question of loving the elderly by exploring the ethics of love, including the Golden Rule.  He writes:
In the admonition to love our aging self, the command to love not only offers a normative ethics but may also explain why caring about the elderly is such a difficult thing. My contention is that we do not love our own aging, we do not love growing old, and thus, in general, we do not love old people. There is a deep-seated aversion toward aging -- and consequently toward old people -- that is widespread throughout human culture. Evolution gave us a spontaneous care instinct for the bodily needs of vulnerable babies, but it left us without such an instinct toward vulnerable old people. On the contrary, the idea of old age is horrific disgusting, and tainted by mortality has a long history in Western classical traditions as well as in Eastern cultures. Simone de Beauvoir was undoubtedly correct when she said: "If old people show the same desires, the same feelings and same requirements as the young, the world looks upon them with disgust: in them love and jealously seem revolting and absurd, sexuality repulsive and violence ludicrous." Old people may be stereotyped positively as exemplars of virtue or negatively stigmatized because of their vices. "In any case, either by their virtue or by their degradation, the stand outside humanity." [Loving Later Life, pp. 62-63]. 
If we cannot love ourselves as aging people we are likely unable to love the elderly. Why, because they serve as reminders that this is our future, and we would rather not face that fact. We would rather embrace the lure of being young.  For many people the early retirement years, perhaps up to the mid 80s offer the opportunity for being active and in firm control of one's own life, but eventually we come to that point in life where we lose our ability to control our lives and become increasingly dependent on others. That is, as I've discovered from my many conversations with older persons over the years is very scary. But by loving our own aging selves, we are in a better position to be of support to those who find themselves increasingly dependent on others.  

I will share more on this once I am able to review the book.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reading and Preaching the Song of Solomon

It is rare that the lectionary takes us to the Song of Solomon. It is probably rarer still that a preacher would choose to focus on this passage. If you're a lectionary preacher are you going to join me in taking up Song of Solomon 2:8-13?

The question raised by the song as a whole has centered on whether to read it as a secular love song -- after all, nowhere does God appear in the poem.  It is a conversation between two lovers. It is erotic in nature. While the language is poetic and full of euphemism, it is fairly easy to figure things out. Thus, there is a clear reason why ancient Christian interpreters chose to follow rabbinic interpretations and move toward spiritual/allegorical readings. We're just not that comfortable talking about sex in church.  It's not just the question of gay and lesbian relationships, it's sex in general.

So, what do we do with this song?  It sits there within the borders of Scripture. It is sacred scripture. Perhaps it is the link to Solomon that cemented its place there, but it's still there.  Historical-critical readings lead us to interpret it as it was most surely first written -- a secular love song between two lovers (who may or may not have been married).  At the same time tradition invites us to read it allegorically as a love song between God and God's people (Jesus and the church). Could both be possible?

As I ponder these things in the midst of writing this week's sermon on this passage (yes, I'm taking it on), I would like to share this paragraph from Stephanie Paulsell's commentary on this book.

The history of the Song's reception is a history of multiple readings that find in this erotic poetry about two lovers' fruitful ways of pondering the relationship between God and Israel, Christ and the church, God and the soul. The song itself resists any absolute declarations about the intention of the author(s) or the final identity of the characters; it is poetry, after all. At their best, Christian readings of the Song enter the long conversation about this poem about the Song's own concerns: love, desire, the body, and the distance between even the most intimate lovers.  [Harvey Cox & Stephanie Paulsell, Lamentations and the Song of Songs: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible), WJK Press, 2012, p. 194].
If you would like to see how I handle the passage from this book you'll have to join us Sunday at Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy or simply check back to see the posted sermon. It's always more interesting live!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Defiled by Traditions? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14B

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 
‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

                Traditions can be helpful. They help preserve and pass on important information that helps define one’s identity and purpose. Tradition is a bit like the genetic code, which passes on useful information that help form a person’s biology and identity. It’s the nature part of the nature vs. nurture debate. Unfortunately genetic material can get corrupted (mutated), causing immense problems such as hereditary diseases.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Vicar of Tent Town (Shauna Hyde): An Endorsement

THE VICAR OF TENT TOWNBy Shauna Hyde. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2015. vi + 89 pages.

Sometime back I was asked to write an endorsement of a book written by a United Methodist pastor about her ministry with the homeless in Charleston, WV.  I'd like to share that brief word of endorsement and recommend to you this book from Energion Publications, which I must add has published several of my own books.  

In The Vicar of Tent Town the Rev. Shauna Hyde tells the story of her calling to what most would consider a rather unusual ministry. Newly called to a Charleston, WV United Methodist church, she is introduced by members of her own congregation to a homeless encampment, and in the course of the story she becomes its Vicar – the pastor for the homeless, even as she served a traditional congregation. In the course of this insightful book Shauna Hyde we are drawn into her ministry, getting to know both members of her congregation who encouraged her in this ministry and who shared in it with her. We also get to know the residents of this community, discovering that there are many reasons why people end up homeless and why they stay homeless. You might be surprised at what you learn. This is not only a book that informs; it inspires one to new visions of ministry. In a time when religion is seen as irrelevant to life, Shauna Hyde offers evidence to the contrary.
Shauna currently serves as the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Ravenswood, WV. Her book is a powerful meditation on ministry with persons who live on the fringe of our society.  I highly recommend it, especially congregations wrestling with becoming more involved in ministries touching the community's most vulnerable persons.