Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
When I first looked at the lectionary texts for this week, I thought I had made a terrible mistake...that somehow, I had confused the particular texts for this particular day.
The first Old Testament reading from Genesis, which Mary read, is about the lovely and gracious Rebekah agreeing to become a bride. The second Old Testament reading, which you did not hear this morning, is from the 45th Psalm, entitled: Ode to a Royal Wedding.
Rebekah the bride and Ode to a Royal Wedding.
Surely, these texts belonged two or three weeks ago when we were in the midst of celebrating the marriage of Rebecca Harvard and Michael Leonard.
However, a closer reading revealed that "Rebecca" is not correctly spelled in the book of Genesis. Besides, Isaac's Rebekah consented to a ring on her nose as opposed to a ring on her hand. Additionally, the ceremony of the psalmist's royal wedding required the bride to bow down to her kingly groom, among other things. Now, Michael you're a prince of a guy but I don't foresee too much bowing down going on, on the part of your bride!
Historical-critical interpretation of scripture is very, very important. So, I was a bit relieved that I actually had the right texts for the right day. But, the relief was short lived as I read the lectionary texts which we have heard this morning.
The texts about Isaac and Rebekah and even the Psalmist's text about the royal wedding seem relatively compatible. Yet, the other texts seem to have a number of tensions and contradictions between and among them...even within the verses themselves the kinds of contradictions that make the Bible seem anything but "clear."
Paul struggles mightily in his letter to the church at Rome: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I can not do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now, if I do what I do not want it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me."
My guess is that every person in this sanctuary identifies with Paul's turmoil. Every one of us raises questions about our responses to God, our understandings of God's will, our attitudes and behaviors toward one another and even toward ourselves.
If we are free from sin by the power of Jesus Christ, then how are we bound by that which we do not want to do? It is a tension with which we struggle.
Paul's later statement--"with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin"-seems to polarize the spirit as good and the flesh as evil. Yet, this text stands in the circle of conversation with the beautiful, sensual verses from the Song of Solomon: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come." In this poetry are proclamations of divinely blessed human love, love that is inseparably emotional, physical and spiritual. How can flesh and spirit be separate entities?
The Incarnation of Jesus is itself proclamation of spirit and flesh inseparably woven: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
In Matthew, we hear the tension between those who rejected the teachings of John because he was too mournful, so isolated off in the desert, too strange because of his appearance, his teetotaling, his insect diet; yet, Jesus, who feasted and celebrated in the middle of the city, inviting everyone to enjoy and participate, was dismissed as a drunkard. And, so, the observers chose neither proclamation; they chose, rather, a paralyzing ignorance of the divine.
The contradictions are even familiar in the invitation..."come to me you who are burdened and heavy ladened for I will give you rest. My yoke is easy; my burden is light." Who ever heard of an easy yoke or a light burden? Seems to be confusion, contradiction, tension in the word of the Lord.
At a recent gathering of Presbyterians, questions were being posed about Presbyterian "liberals" and "conservatives." One person asked, fortunately, for a clarifying definition. one of the answers was that conservatives are more oriented to the Bible; liberals, to social justice. That answer did not make sense to me. I did not understand the "either/or" distinction, the apparent contradiction. For most Christians, liberal or conservative, that I know, responses and lives of social justice are born out of scripture---not separate from the texts. In a similar manner, those who are oriented to the Bible, I would assume, would read and embrace God's expectations of justice and kindness.
But maybe not.
For many, the decision made at General Assembly this past Friday does not seem to be born of divine justice and kindness. The Assembly meeting in Albuquerque passed the following:
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
The vote was 313-236. There was no applause or cheering as is often the case when a major decision is made. After a 15 minute subdued recess some 1000 people participated in a sanctioned walk through the assembly hall carrying a large wooden cross, draped in white. Together they sang, "We are marching in the light of God's love."
This action will now come back to each Presbytery to be voted upon. By General Assembly next year, a majority of Presbyteries will have to agree on this action for it to be ratified for the denomination.
I am deeply disturbed by this decision. Yet, I also know that many of you are deeply pleased. It is part of the contradiction of being an institutional church.
One of my concerns is that this decision hardly encourages gifted and spiritual leaders to participate in the life of the church. If anything, this decision discourages abundant life in the church and possibly creates a new level of deception and dishonesty.
Joe called me from the beach yesterday afternoon identifying himself as the chastity police. It is funny at the moment, but what is happening to us, to the Southern Baptists, to any church that wants to pick single, limiting interpretations from the Bible as the center point of life and faith?
A letter to the editor this weekend regarding the Southern Baptists decisions to boycott Disney and to actively evangelize the Jews may also apply to Presbyterians: "The church as Christ intended should be an institution of love and service. It should be ready to help lost souls who need moral support and insight. However, evangelism loses its divine intentions when it is done out of condemnation. It only repels people instead of reaching out to them. The only time Jesus lashed out came when he saw people using the temple to make money."
I might add that other times Jesus lashed out was when demons threatened to destroy someone.
Let me hasten to say, lest I be misunderstood, I am hardly opposed to fidelity in marriage nor am I in favor of rampant, recreational sex void of relationship and mutual commitment. I am among those who would like to put more requirements and support into pre-marital decisions and counseling before--and probably after--each Royal wedding.
I also know that not everyone is called into the covenant marriage. And, as long as our society and government deny the possibility of same sex unions, we deny the realities of relationships which do exist full of mutual commitment, fidelity, and love.
Just as sadly, we deny the reality of who God calls into ministry, into leadership, into service.
Friday night, I was having a tough time being a Presbyterian. When the news and stories came in from Albuquerque, I was sitting at the table surrounded by these contradictory texts and the sermon title, "Shall We Dance?" I did not feel much like dancing.
But Jesus said: "come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
Sometimes, it is so very difficult to be still, to rest in divine promises. Like Paul, I want to DO what is right. What "right" means, well, texts are rarely explicitly clear. To the question, "Where, then, do we turn?" Biblical professor Eugene March says we turn "to the broader message of the Bible, to the examples of justice and love, to the Ten Commandments, to the Beatitudes, to the life and teaching of our Savior Jesus Christ. And until we have clarity, we exercise restraint in what we say the Bible says or doesn't say."
The Bible is filled with the teachings of Jesus. We, like the first disciples, must continue to listen intently, even if--maybe especially--in our uncertainty.
"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
In the verses preceding that invitation, Jesus thanked God, the Lord of heaven and earth for things that have been revealed, not to the wise and intelligent, but to infants, the ones who have no pretense to knowledge, infants who let God be God on God's own terms. The knowledge that Christ has of God and that God gives to Jesus is more than intellectual perception; this knowledge includes notions of choice and intimacy.
Several weeks ago when Joe preached about the Trinity, he used the term "perichoresis"--one of my favorite words from seminary, not only because of the way it sounds, but because it is a description of the intimate, fluid, dancing relationship within the Triune God who is Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost; the God who-loving us, redeeming us, holding to us---wants us to be part of the divine dance...no matter how faltering our steps; a dance where our loyalty, above all else, is to the leader of the dance.
General Assembly meets every summer about this time. There are always questions and debates, decisions and delays, folks struggling with how to be faithful. There are hurtful and even hateful things that go on, I am sad to say, just as there are in any organized human institution. However, God's spirit is not daunted; God's mercy is from everlasting to everlasting.
Five summers ago, the General Assembly ratified the Brief Statement of Faith placing it side by side with all the other historic confessions of the church, the confessions by which we are called to live as faithful people, as the body of Christ.
Look closely at those words. Hear them deep in your soul. There may not be room in this sanctuary for a full blown dance. If there were, we would need space for the polkas as well as the waltzes. Rather, as we continue to learn divine dance steps, let us stand together and speak words of hope, trust, and promise before God, the holy one, the Lord of Heaven and earth:
In life and death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve. We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the church. The same spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture, engages us through the Word proclaimed, claims us in the waters of baptism, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and calls women and men to all ministries of the church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God's new heaven and new earth, praying, "Come, Lord Jesus!"