July 12, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Ruth 2:14-23, Song of Songs 2:1-7
Listen to the Lovesick Soul
A few weeks ago on Friday June twenty-sixth, I was in Cleveland for General Synod, the national gathering of the United Church of Christ. This was an emotionally charged day for our nation. Being with the crowd of thousands at Synod, there was a strange and stirred up Spirit in the air. And I know it was the Spirit of the LORD.
See on Friday June twenty-sixth, our sisters and brothers were mourning. I wasn’t having dinner with my dear friend who lives in Cleveland because she had to go to Charleston for the weekend to bury her cousin. On this day, the President of the United States delivered the eulogy for our brother in Christ, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. President Obama stood up in front of the world and sang Amazing Grace. The hearts of the people broke open.
Also on this day, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality for our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. That’s the kind of news the national body of the UCC does not take quietly. A booth went up outside City Hall for couples to get married right on the street. The news media gathered, and there was an outpouring of joy not just for a legislative victory, but for love, for couples who had been afraid who were no longer afraid. A new promise with rainbows everywhere you looked! And the hearts of the people broke open.
All this happened on the same day. There was mourning and there was dancing at the same time! There usually is. Whether on this particular Friday or some other day, I imagine you have experienced this clashing in your own life. A baby is born in your family on the same day that somebody dies. You get the news that your cancer has returned on the same day your daughter tells you she’s getting married.
As people of faith, we are called to see the suffering in the world. God knows there is too much suffering to see. So how can we talk about pleasure and beauty at a time like this? How dare we indulge in songs of praise when we’re wading waist-deep into sorrow! At best, there is a jarring disconnect. At worst, we sound cruel and unaware of the truth. Like when the hungry people were asking for bread and the queen announced “So let them eat cake!” with a flick of her wrist in the air.
Or maybe it’s the opposite. What if seeing the truth makes us wade waist-deep into sorrow but then keep going all the way to the other side; see sorrow turn into joy. What if we need a faith that sustains us but then is more than sustenance? What if we need a faith that not only helps us endure pain but that entices us to know the unashamed, sparkling pleasure of God…
Today we’re continuing the summer sermon series called In the Garden. Both of our scriptures feature agricultural imagery. Both scriptures demonstrate how when the Bible talks about gleaning the field or tasting the sweet fruit, it’s usually not just talking about gleaning the field or eating an apple. It’s exactly what you’re thinking. Right in the Bible, the word of God, there is erotic love poetry.
Our first scripture comes to us from the story of Ruth. Now Ruth was an outsider; she was from Moab, but she was living with her mother-in-law Naomi and with Naomi’s people in Bethlehem. These two women fled there when there was a famine in the land, and Naomi’s sons and Ruth’s husband died. You’ve got to imagine that Naomi worried is about Ruth. Here she is with a strange people in a strange land. Then along comes Boaz a distant relative of Naomi, and a man who noticed Ruth. Cue the orchestra for the lovestruck theme.
What happens in our scripture is a kind of subtle wooing that artfully blends seduction with eating. Boaz invites Ruth to come over and share his bread. Then, he invites her to gather up the leftover grain in the field so she and her mother-in-law will have enough to eat. He even directs his staff to leave enough left over for Ruth to gather. Naomi urges Ruth to go and meet Boaz one night at the threshing floor and their courtship begins… The story of Ruth is one of weeping that turns into joy, mourning that turns into dancing, hunger answered with more than enough to eat.
Actually, both of the scriptures we hear today highlight a connection between falling in love and having more than enough to eat. Both scriptures showcase the dynamic of vulnerability and power, giving and receiving, a splendid back-and-forth energy illuminating how love comes to life not in the act of rescue but in the rhythm of dialogue.
We hear this mutuality come to voice in our second scripture which comes from the hands down sexiest book in the Bible, Song of Songs. The woman says, “I am just an ordinary flower of Sharon, a plain old lily of the valleys.” But her beloved argues, “No, as a lily among brambles, so are you among maidens.” She replies, “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so are you among men.” She continues with this song about him: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.”
This poetry is utterly unembarrassed. It is shimmering and exquisite; and if you are wondering, what is this doing in the Bible? Maybe it’s proving that the love of God isn’t just hopeful rhetoric or a brilliant idea. The love of God can feel good too.
Somebody’s got to remember this. In a world where sorrow is not an idea but the very water we drink, somebody’s got to remember there is an other side out beyond the sorrow. In a time when hunger is not just a spiritual metaphor, but an actual life or death crisis for Syrian refugees, for children in this neighborhood, somebody’s got to remember that food is not just for achieving a recommended number of calories. Food can be good.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, James Oppenheim wrote a poem called “Bread and Roses” in support of the rising movement for worker justice. The third verse gives you the flavor of the whole poem:
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!
Friends, faith can be more than sustenance, more than the strength to endure pain. Faith is how we remember the unashamed sparkling pleasure of God. And living in this world at this time, somebody’s got to remember. Somebody’s got to remember how to dance so we’re ready when the mourning turns over.
After college, I spent a year in Washington DC living and working in a transitional home for women in recovery from addiction and homelessness. You might have heard me talk about this experience before because this house is the place where I learned how to dance in the kitchen. These women are the ones who taught me the truth of joy, and how dare we take it for granted.
Living in this community, I also learned the value of beauty and comfort. See when you have to get up in the dark to go to a twelve step meeting, then you work all day, come home at night to do chores, it means something to sleep in a real bed in a real bedroom, not on a metal cot, in a row of metal cots, in a room that permanently smells of bleach-soaked linoleum. It means something to have a closet in which to hang up your work uniform. It means something to live in a house with actual furniture and paintings on the wall, with curtains in the windows and decorations for the holidays.
I don’t know if the directors of the organization had to argue for these things. I don’t know if anybody said to them, “Oh the poor should take what we give them and be grateful.” I don’t know if anybody said, “Oh we could help so many more homeless people if we weren’t spending money on things like bedspreads, or curtains, or flowers for the yard.” I don’t know if anybody made those arguments we hear all the time in a nation where we get mad at the poor for being poor, but if anybody made these arguments, they did not win.
Brothers and sisters, please don’t settle for a faith that serves you cabbage soup and then grumbles, “Well you should be so grateful.” The good news of our faith is better than that! We need a faith that is sturdy enough to endure pain, but if the gardens in the Bible teach us anything, we need a faith that will entice us to know the unashamed, sparkling pleasure of God. Not just to feel, but to share. Not just to receive, but to give.
Because it might be up to us. It might be up to us to bring the promise of comfort and joy to people who are hurting. It might be pleasing to God for us to fall in love, and lead the dancing, and let our hearts break open, and go ahead and spend the money planting flowers in the yard or bringing flowers to someone who’s tired of being alone. Flowers give glory to God.
Today we hear the prayer, how can I keep from singing? It’s not because there’s no suffering in the world. It’s exactly because there is. Our faith reminds us that suffering is real and suffering is not all, and somebody’s got to know the songs for the other side. Somebody needs to set the table, and open the wine, and drizzle cherries over the cheesecake, and remember it is good. Remember the LORD who makes this world, and loves this world, and sees the truth, and sees that it is good. Hallelujah. Amen.