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Love. Now More than Ever.

Many Christians heard a rather odd collection of biblical texts this morning (Genesis 24, Song of Solomon 2:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). As I reflected on each of these texts to prepare to preach on them, I kept coming back to this: the world-changing power of love.

Yes, it’s a cliché, and it still matters. The following are some observations about those texts and why Christians gathering at the Eucharistic Table still matters, and why churches trying to live a life-changing gospel still matters, and why love itself matters, now more than ever.

The passage in Genesis presents the story of Rebekah drawing water from a well, a providential sign from God (as the story goes) that this woman would be Isaac’s wife. There’s something like a Hollywood-worthy moment in this story when Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time and leaps from her camel, and when Isaac sees her, and – as the storyteller says – he loved her, and she comforted him as he mourned the death of his mother, Sarah.

Rebekah eventually gives birth to twins – Jacob and Esau – and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. So this is not just a tender story of young romance, but a life-changing, history-shaping encounter with erotic love.

Or maybe not…there are too many sexy bits in this story, as some early Christian theologians seemed to think. As was common in the early centuries of Christian traditions, stories like this one from Genesis were read allegorically, filled with symbols of Christ and the Church.

In the third century, Origen proposed that Rebekah at first represents patience, which is honored with jewels from those who are wise. The meeting with Isaac then stands for the union of the soul with Christ. “Are you not yet moved,” Origen writes, “to understand that these words are spoken spiritually? Or do you think that it always just happens by chance that the patriarchs go to wells and obtain their marriages at waters?”

A century later, Ambrose supposed Rebekah symbolizes the soul at the font of wisdom, or perhaps Rebekah at her well of water is the church by the font of baptism, or as Isaac takes his bride to the tent, so Christ lures the wayward toward Heaven (though I’m not sure that sounds any less sexy than the story itself…).

For modern critics of Christianity, these ancient commentaries show how reluctant Christians are to deal with romantic desire, just to let sex be sex.

If some theologians didn’t read enough sex into those ancient stories, I read too much of it into Paul’s letters when I was a teenager. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments over not being able to do what he really wants to do and doing the thing he doesn’t want to do. I read that growing up as so obviously and self-evidently about sexual desire.

I mean, of course I read it that way! That’s how pious Evangelical teenagers think, can’t help but think that way, wish desperately at times they could think of just about anything else.

Paul captures that adolescent vexation precisely: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That was basically the first-century script for my mid-twentieth century hormone-ravaged youth group.

But Paul doesn’t say what exactly vexed him so terribly much. While I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with sex, I find it much more useful these days to read Paul in relation to the socio-economic systems in which all of us are embedded, whether we like it or not: we cannot help but contribute to global climate change, for example, just by riding around in a car or purchasing nearly any item from nearly any store; we cannot help but participate in the institutional dynamics of white supremacy in this society, a system no one alive today helped to create but from white people benefit every day just by trying to live as “good citizens.”

Stop thinking about sex when reading Paul (if you can) and think instead about the suffocating systems of injustice in which we are steeped and through which we try our best to navigate: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even just a glimpse of those systemic issues can be paralyzing; analyzing them is discouraging; trying to dismantle them, exhausting.

“Come to me,” Jesus says in Matthew, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Many of the self-styled progressives in my seminary classroom are actually troubled by these words from Matthew’s Jesus, or at least suspicious of them. There’s too much work to do! No time for rest and we can’t possibly lay down our burdens in a world of injustice and violence with no time to spare! Or, as I actually heard an ordained minister say, “there will be plenty of time to rest when they lay me in a grave.”

So thank goodness for the Song of Solomon! Or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs. I am endlessly fascinated by that little book of erotic poetry tucked away in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible where most people can’t even find it. Even more, it carries with it a wonderfully peculiar history in Jewish and Christian traditions, especially among mystics (a history that shaped my book on sexual intimacy and the Eucharist).

The lectionary option to read that portion from the Song of Songs rather than a psalm kept pushing me back to erotic desire as I read the other texts, kept urging me to notice love and why it matters.

Part of what makes the history of this little biblical text so peculiar is how important the Song of Songs was to Medieval Christians and how it nearly vanished entirely among modern Christians. For centuries, the Song of Songs was the one text most often copied, the one text most often chosen for commentaries, and the one text most often selected by preachers. More Latin manuscripts of this erotic poetry exist than any other biblical book. More medieval sermons were preached on it than any other and it took its place along with the four gospels as among the most important; at times the Song of Songs was read more often than any of the gospels except John – and that’s because many thought John was early Christian commentary on the Song of Songs!

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He Qi: “The Song of Solomon”

What in the world is all that about? Simply put: for our medieval ancestors, only the language of erotic desire can capture our own deep longing for God. The yearning for encounter, for intimacy, and for communion among dear friends and spouses and loved ones – what the ancient Greeks called Eros – this is the very same desire that draws us closer to God.

I certainly never heard that growing up. I would have read Paul’s letters quite differently if I had. Modern Western Christians generally have been quite skeptical about mixing the language of faith with the messy entanglements of erotic longing. Some critique this rather pointedly: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. God isn’t even mentioned once in the Song of Songs!

Yes, that’s true, respond the mystics. And that’s because God is the one speaking:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. …
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (2:13-14).

I can scarcely imagine how the world would change if that were the divine voice people heard – not the scolder-in-chief, the wrathful judge, the distant father from whom the best we can hope is tolerance. No, but the voice of the beloved, as the song writer says, the one “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” eagerly coming in search of the lover – for us.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the mushy Hallmark-card version of sentimental romance. To see and know ourselves as the cause of God’s ceaseless delight will forever change the way we see others and the world around us; we become even less tolerant of injustice, even more scandalized by hateful speech, even more committed to act boldly and courageously and beyond what we thought possible for the sake of a better world.

As Matthew makes clear, the kind of “rest” promised by Jesus is not without burdens, but they are ever so much lighter when taken up with love.

The mystics actually warned us about this: If you hear that divine voice, truly hear the Beloved speak, be careful! The love of God will change you, unravel you, and remake you.

And that’s exactly what the world needs: people who are changed by love.

Come to Rebekah’s well.
Enter Isaac’s tent.
Gather at the Eucharistic Table, a foretaste (lest we forget) of the heavenly wedding banquet.

And then lay down the burdens that are not yours to carry.
Pick up the lighter one instead,
the one that matters,
the one that makes a difference,
the one borne because of love.

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Civil Rights and the Bride of Christ

Christians have good reasons to celebrate today’s landmark ruling on marriage from the U.S. Supreme Court. Not least among those reasons: social justice. As a civil contract, marriage carries responsibilities and a host of financial and legal benefits to which lesbian and gay couples should be granted equal access; at long last we now know that the Supreme Court agrees.roland_marriage

While today’s ruling clearly advances the cause of justice as well as the dignity of loving, faithful relationships, Christians have still more to say about marriage that has nothing to do with legislatures or courts. The “more” we have to say presents a rich opportunity for Christian faith communities to delve more deeply into three important and interrelated topics concerning liberty, gender, and hope. A brief word about each:

Religious Liberty
Recent pizzeria and cake decorating debates aside, the freedom of religious expression in the United States has always exhibited a great deal of complexity and generated more than a little consternation. Nineteenth century Mormons could give us an ear-full about the religious practice of polygamy (or “plural marriage”) and the so-called “separation of Church and State” – or more pointedly, the judicial limit on the first amendment right to religious expression.

More recently, prominent Southern Baptists joined dozens of others in an open letter to the Supreme Court urging them to decide against marriage equality. They asked more specifically that the justices not force them to “choose between the stbible_us_flagate and the Laws of God.” I find that request quite astonishing. Why would clergy worry that a secular court of law would “force” them to choose between the State and God? Should there really be any question about that choice? Perhaps that question could inspire more Christian communities to ponder anew the relationship between patriotism and faith, or between nation-state and religion. How Christians do or should think and act about such things is not nearly as clear-cut as the public debates about them would seem to indicate.

Religious Gender
This topic exhibits as much if not more complexity than religious liberty. Consider, for example, that San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone recently outed himself as transgender if not perhaps “gender queer.” At a conference in New York earlier this month, Cordileone warned his listeners about “gender ideology” while simultaneously (though likely accidentally) referring to himself as a “bride.” The whole biblical story of faith, he observed, is all about marriage; God establishes an “eternal covenant between him, the bridegroom, and his bride, the church.” So, should the archbishop, as a member of the Church, wear the garlands of a bride? Or should he, as a representative of Christ, insist on being the bridegroom? Can one person be both? Wouldn’t that be, well, rather queer?

If nothing else, Archbishop Cordileone’s observations can remind us that the history of gender rarely presents the kind of tidy, binary approach to maleness and femaleness that has emerged in the modern West over the last couple of centuries. Witness the ongoing exultation and near panic concerning Caitlyn Jenner.

Religious Hope
The first two topics lead nicely to this: There is more to hope for from human life than marriage. While that should be obvious, one might struggle to find evidence for that hope in the marriage equality debates that have been growing in both volume and consequence over the last fifteen years.

Consider Justice Anthony Kennedy’s observations, writing for the majority in today’s ruling. “No union is more profound than marriage,” he declared, “for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.” Justice Kennedy not only sets a fairly high bar for marital satisfaction and achievement (no pressure!), but one could easily read his comments as denigrating all other forms of relationship.

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“The Song of Solomon,” He Qi, ©2001

One of my favorite theologians, Elizabeth Stuart, lamented back in 2003 that both “conservatives” and “liberals” have missed entirely what Christian traditions have tried to say about marriage: It helps to awaken our desire for God and to stir our hope for the heavenly wedding banquet yet to come. The purpose and fulfillment of human life, in other words, is communion with God and with each other. Marriage, at its best, inspires that hope – and many other forms of committed, loving relationship can do so as well.

In short, I’m grateful that the Supreme Court has made clear what should be obvious: civil marriage equality is a matter of social justice. And perhaps this ruling will spark deeper conversations in Christian faith communities about the very essence of the Gospel: the deep desire and abiding hope for divine communion.

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Radical Nuns Take Over the U.N. — World Peace Declared and the Church Objects!

That is, of course, a ludicrous headline, worthy of “The Onion.” That said, and given some of my past experience with Roman Catholic women religious, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they made the attempt.

Moreover, given the latest absurdities from the Vatican concerning apparently “rogue nuns,” I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Church objected to world peace if it didn’t conform to orthodox doctrinal standards. I wish I were making that up. Alas, the Vatican recently voiced its objection to the compelling and effective social justice ministries of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, even though those ministries are perfectly aligned with more than a century of Catholic social teaching. (Don’t try to make sense of institutional Christianity; it will make you crazy and drive you to drink. I’m here to testify.)

So let’s pause here. Take a deep breath. Perhaps we can frame these absurdities with the peculiarities of Christian faith. Sure, radical nuns taking over the United Nations is ludicrous. But consider the following story. Is it any less ludicrous?

Two friends are walking down a dusty, deserted road. They are sad and grieving over the death of a friend. As they talk about their lives and the state of the world and their grief, a stranger joins them on the road. This stranger has truly mind-blowing things to say about the meaning of life and those two friends are spellbound.

They invite the stranger to join them for supper. As they sit down to table, they finally recognize this stranger as their dear friend who had died. In that very moment, the stranger disappears.

That’s a rough paraphrase of a classic Easter season story from Luke’s gospel (24:13-35), often referred to as the “Emmaus Road story.” It’s one of my favorites. I like to pair it with the story about “doubting Thomas” that so many Christians heard this past Sunday. I like to pair those stories because both of them diffuse our obsession with certainty. Both of them dethrone human hubris. Both of them elevate doubt and humility to spiritual virtues.

I take both stories as cautionary tales for theologians (like me) and institutional Christianity more generally. Any attempt to make absolute statements about God, Christian faith, or spiritual practice will always fail. Always. Like the risen Christ in the story from Luke, God will always slip through our fingers in that very moment when we think we have it all figured out – or more pointedly, all nailed down, understood, captured, and controlled.

The truth of any religious tradition or spiritual practice does not reside in how well we talk about it or parse its doctrines or ensure its systematic coherence. No, the truth of any religion resides in how we live it, and how our living promotes liberation from oppression, social justice, human flourishing, and planetary thriving. If that kind of effective spiritual living runs counter to doctrinal articulation, it’s high time to adjust the doctrine. The entire history of Christianity bears painful witness to this.

To be clear, I’m not promoting intellectual laxity, moral libertinism, or “laissez-faire spirituality.” I believe Christians ought to make bold claims, strike outrageous social postures, and preach like our lives depend on it (because they actually do). But I also believe that we should infuse all of it with a healthy dose of humility. After all, we could be wrong; we have been wrong in the past; we will be wrong again.

Alas, institutional Christianity’s besetting sin is not boldness but safety; not risk for the sake of life but the status quo for the sake of survival; not reckless creativity but staid conformity, and mostly for the sake of power and privilege. And by “institutional Christianity,” I do not mean only Roman Catholicism.

So here’s a modest proposal for this Easter season. If even the most wonderful news of all time – the resurrection of Jesus – can slip through our fingers in the blink of an eye, then we might want to handle our doctrinal positions a bit more lightly.

Here’s the more pointed version: If the Church can’t control the risen Christ, then maybe it shouldn’t try to control radical nuns who are actually living the Resurrection in their work of social justice and human flourishing.

Is doctrinal adjustment too high a price to pay for new life? Really?