Sunday, September 23, 2018

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”


Among scholars, there is a lively debate about when, precisely, childhood was invented.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, and the leading theories are quite convincing. This is largely a debate that concerns Western societies, and crosses lines between history, art, literature and social science. Class figures large in the debate, and the church plays an important role.

Where to begin? Philosopher John Locke, writing in the late 1600’s, suggested that children are born like a “blank slate” (tabula rasa) and should be instructed with correct ideas that might serve them as adults. Jean Jacques Rousseau took this further some years later, suggesting that children are—by nature—innocent and ought to be protected and treasured. This lead to a new style of portraiture, where artists presented an idealized version of childhood innocence and grace.

By the Victorian era this had blossomed into a full-fledged industry, when the so-called “golden age of children’s literature,” took hold. Books such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan portrayed a kind of perpetual childhood—and child’s desire to remain in this idealized state forever. But only of you were rich.

Across town, where most of our forebears lived, Locke, Rousseau and Lewis Carroll were largely unknown. Childhood meant labour, first on the farm or amid small craft industries, and later in the dark, satanic mills of the industrial revolution.

The evidence is in the laws passed that outlawed what was then the life of a working-class child. In 1833, the British parliament passed the 10 Hours Act, which forced woollen mills to no long employ children under nine, and further required that anyone under eighteen work no more that 58 hours a week. And these were the trades that were easy to regulate: chimney sweeps and coal miners proved much harder.

And what about education, the “job” we now assign to children? This is where the church first shines, with the invention of Sunday School at the beginning of the industrial revolution. There was some religious instruction: but mostly classes in literacy and numeracy for the children that worked six days a week in the mines and factories.

And the idea spread: congregations like Central were synonymous with their large Sunday schools, providing basic instruction in the period before governments undertook this role. In fact, it was one of our ministers, Egerton Ryerson, who promoted free and universal education, and went on to become the founder of public education in Ontario. With parents compelled to send their children to school, some might argue that the idea of childhood was fully formed.

Now that you have this five-minute history of childhood in the West firmly in your head, what do we make of Mark 9, and the little child that Jesus takes into his arms? This child becomes an object lesson for the kingdom, an example of a great reversal, and a welcome by proxy. Listen again:

“Anyone” Jesus said, “who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Before we try to understand this seemingly simple passage, it might help to do a wee survey of children in the Bible. Who are they and what do they represent? What can they teach us about the faith? The word “child” or “children” appears nearly a thousand times in the Bible, so how will we review all of them and still get home for lunch?

Luckily, they seem to fall into some general categories. Children begin, obviously enough, as a symbol of the future: the hope of generations, descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Sarah laughs when she is promised a child, and God keeps that promise.

The story takes an odd turn when God says to the child’s father “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Funny that just the mention of Mount Moriah and my son Isaac would smarten up—proving that scripture has a variety of uses.)

Scholars argue that the “sacrifice of Isaac” was God’s symbolic rejection of human sacrifice, but it still proves Abraham’s obedience and his trust in God’s promises. And this is echoed in another theme, that of dedication. Hannah thanks God for the gift of a child and then dedicates young Samuel—giving him to the High Priest Eli for instruction. God’s call to Samuel, and the back-in-forth with old Eli is perhaps the most delightful interaction with a child in scripture.

Far less delightful is the treatment of children in Proverbs, which serves up some sadly familiar ideas such as “spare the rod and spoil the child.” And while these exact words do not appear, they summarize a handful of passages including this “wisdom” in air quotes: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” It’s a bit of a shock that in 1976 the Good News Bible took this archaic advice and gave to an unhelpful, modern spin. They wrote, “Children just naturally do silly, careless things, but a good spanking will teach them how to behave.” As a rule, I don’t condemn Bible passages, but this one deserves to be forgotten.

By the time we get to the New Testament, the picture of children is mixed. St. Paul seems to represent the “silly, careless” view with familiar passages such as “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Childhood is a largely ignorant state for Paul, one that we must overcome to grow into a mature believer.

The contrast, then, is to Jesus, who seems to find children exactly when he needs to make a point. And in our passage, it’s about welcoming a child as a symbol of welcoming Jesus, and by welcoming Jesus you welcome God. It seems straightforward enough, but some of the first readers obviously disagreed. Chief among them was Matthew, who read (or remembered) the story by Mark’s telling, and decided to make it clearer. He wrote:

2 [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

In other words, set aside your petty argument about which among you is the greatest, and become humble like children. If you can become humble as this child is humble, only then can you be great in the kingdom. But there must be more to children than their humility, their lower rank in the estimation of the world. It’s not like Jesus to reinforce hierarchy, even if it’s big versus small.

I think this is why Jesus takes another try at explaining children, just one chapter later, with this passage from Matthew 19. I’m going to read from the King James to help understand:

13 Then were there brought unto [Jesus] little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. 15 And he laid his hands on them, and departed.

Suffer, of course, it just an archaic way of saying “permit, or let” them come unto me. We don’t use suffer in place of permit any more, but the King James writers made this choice, and I think the choice was intentional. They came from a time before the dark, satanic mills of industrial England, but child mortality was high, and the lot of children was difficult, and their situation had advanced little from the time of Jesus.

Nor has the worldwide picture really changed: Children still work, children are malnourished, children lack healthcare or even clean water to drink, children suffer abuse (in every society) and children are caught in war. Toronto is the child poverty capital of Canada* with one-in-four living in poverty, while in York South-Weston it’s one-in-three. It makes the drop-in and the community kitchen critical to the neighbourhood, and our support for the food bank more vital than ever.

Jesus, from the moment his ministry began, was healing children, feeding children, driving demons out of children, and even returning children from the dead. In our terms, he spend as much time in the Sunday School as he did with the big people. “Suffer little children to come unto me,” he said, “for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Amen.


http://www.oacas.org/2017/11/toronto-region-remains-the-child-poverty-capital-of-the-country

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.


There is nothing quite like a good disguise.

And no where is this more obvious than in films. Think Tootsie (1982) where Dustin Hoffman plays a notoriously difficult actor who must dress as a woman in order to find work. Or Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), where Robin Williams plays a divorced father who dresses up as a nanny to spend time with his children. Or Some Like it Hot (1959), where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon dress as women to escape the mob, or to lounge around with Marilyn Monroe. Both, really.

And disguises, of course, are not limited to famous actors putting on dresses. In The Parent Trap (1961), twins Susan and Sharon (both played by Hayley Mills) meet at Miss Inch’s Summer Camp for Girls and discover that they are literally “twins separated at birth.” Adopting the same hairstyle and mannerisms they switch places, a simple but effective disguise.

And there is the disguise we also call “slumming.” A famous example is Sir Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Henry V (yes, I know it was a play before it was a film) where King Henry puts on the cloak of someone of lower rank and moves among his troops to learn how they feel about their king and the looming battle. He uses the not-very-convincing name Henry Leroy (French for Henry the king) and tells people he’s Welsh (well, he was once the Prince of Wales). I love the film, but recognize that it’s really just Sir Kenneth’s excuse to make the famous speech:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

That’s the closest I’ll ever get to the stage. I share all this because the reading Bob shared is all about disguises. Listen again:

On the way [Jesus] asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

It’s an odd little exchange, really. It appears almost word-for-word in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with the only real difference being a sort of conclusion added in Matthew whereby Jesus rewards Peter with the “keys to the kingdom.” Otherwise, they maintain the dialogue we heard this morning. There is no parallel in John—where there seldom is—with John’s Jesus being more vocal about who he is through a series of “I am” statements familiar to us.

But in our passage, Jesus wants to know what people are saying about him. In some ways, the disciples become a sort of focus group, sharing the most common responses they have heard. The first most common response is also the most unexpected: “Some say John the Baptist.”

Unexpected because Jesus and John the Baptist are together at the beginning of the gospels, John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, and John the Baptism even seems to help Jesus craft his early message (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”). Even Herod (who is responsible for the Baptist’s death) decided that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life, saying more about his remorse perhaps than any theological insight.

Others, the disciples then suggest, say Elijah. This suggestion is both logical and plausible: Elijah multiplied bread and oil for the widow of Zarephath, he raised her dead son, he confronted Baal in the same way Jesus confronted the Adversary. Elijah is even predicted to come at the last, “during the great and terrible day of the Lord.” The parallels are irresistible, and by the time Jesus is transfigured, Elijah will appear (with Moses) before Jesus in glory.

But he’s not Elijah. We know this because the focus group continues, as Jesus—unsatisfied with the answers so far—says “yes, but who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks first and for the rest and says “You are the Christ.” Mark remembers it as “the Christ, son of the living God” and Luke simply “the Christ of God.” With this, Jesus says “tell no one.”

I can tell you that a lot of sermon ink has been spilled on this statement “tell no one.” Most often it’s the contrast to John, the Jesus who introduces himself as “the light of the world” or the “Good Shepherd” or “the way, the truth and the life.” It’s hard to overstate the contrast, but it’s also hard to discount John’s recollection, since so many of these “I am” statements have brought so many to faith in Jesus. So we live with the tension.

I can also tell you that “tell no one” is a vain hope. If the somewhat thick-headed disciples can figure it out, then so can everyone in the next row of followers, and those who experience some miracle or healing. The disguise becomes increasingly thin until it’s no longer a disguise at all. Near the end of Mark, as the trial begins, he High Priest examines Jesus and says “tell me, are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus has finally embraced the spirit of John’s Gospel and says simply “I am.”

But the disguises will continue. Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener asking “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me, and I will get him.” Two disciples have an extended conversation with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, only recognizing him when he breaks the bread before the meal. And again, after his death, the disciples are fishing and he appears on the beach, saying “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they say, and he encourages them to try fishing from the other side. Only in the context of the miraculous catch that follows, do the see it is Jesus, who then grills some fish and shares some bread and instructs them one last time.

And the disguises will continue. One of the most pervasive heresies in the early church was docetism, the belief that Jesus wasn’t really human at all, they it was merely ‘God-in-a-Jesus-costume’ that came to earth and walked among us. It seems a convincing way to explain all the miracles and all the wisdom, and it also became a simple way to explain the bodily resurrection: Jesus was never really here, just God visiting in the form of a man.

The problem with this idea was immediately obvious. It reduced the Christ-event to theatre, and it eliminated the vital link we have to God through the humanity of Jesus. It makes Good Friday, Easter and all the resurrection appearances false, along with very identity of the Lord and Saviour that continues to walk with us down to today.

Most importantly, the heresy denied Jesus his humanness, the very means by which he experiences the pain of human living and the suffering we experience in the face of death. The deep well of pain that God holds is only present to us if Jesus knew pain, if he felt betrayal, if he drew a last breath, and returned to God with the totality of human suffering. He can only save us because he knows that from which we need to be saved. He can only forgive us if he experienced our failure first hand.

And the disguises never end. The famous passage in Hebrews says “Don’t forget to entertain strangers—for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares.” In Matthew 25, we are reminded that what we do for the least and last we also do for Jesus, perhaps the verse that most animates those who serve and seek to see Christ in others.

Imagining everyone in need as perhaps Jesus in disguise is a revolution in thinking—it creates a realm of concern and empathy and it destroys the very human impulse to serve only our kin and clan and those who can provide some sort of reward. Our service becomes a way to meet Jesus—it becomes a spiritual encounter—and an act of faith that returns him to our midst once more.

May we find Jesus in everyone we meet. And may God bless every act of kindness, Amen.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

James 2
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.


Advice for today: If you’re gonna read your Bible, don’t begin at the beginning.

I know it seems counter-intuitive, since we are often told to begin at the beginning—but for Bible reading it’s just not the best place to start. Maybe that’s why that little Bible you got in the fifth grade was only the New Testament and Psalms, a simple way to solve the problem of beginning at the beginning. Unfortunately, this causes another issue, since Matthew is better read after you read Mark—so again, don’t begin at the beginning.

So why the lack of love for Genesis? Is this guy Genesisist? Is that even a word? In fact, I love the book of Genesis, and I would commend it to anyone, except the person reading the Bible for the first time. And here’s a simple list to explain:

In the first chapter of Genesis, on the first day, God created light, then separated light and darkness.
A few verses later, the sun (which separates night and day) wasn't created until the fourth day.

In Genesis 1, trees were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before trees were created.

In Genesis 1, birds were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before birds were created.

In Genesis 1, animals were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before animals were created.

In Genesis 1, man and woman were created at the same time.
In Genesis 2, man was created first, then woman sometime later.*

I think you see the problem. There is obviously something happening in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, something that the earliest biblical scholars will sort out in the eighteenth century. Early on, it was suggested that maybe there were two separate accounts melded together, each too important to discard. Thus, what we call source criticism was born. Two sources, edited together, one book with obvious contradictions.

But we don’t need to stop there. The very nature and identity of God is described in varied and often contradictory ways. Some examples:

God is a vengeful God (four places)
God is a warrior (three places)
God is a jealous God (seven places)
God is angry (eleven places, but can you blame God—have you read a newspaper lately?)
But God is love (five places)

I think you get the picture. The truth is, the Bible is not a book, but a library. We call it the “good book” but it’s really more like a good library: many books, by many authors, on various topics—but with lots of agreement and lots of disagreement. Go across the street right now (well, not right now) and find a couple of books on Canadian history. What do they emphasize? What do they downplay? Who will be featured and who will be ignored? They may both be excellent treatments of the topic, but they will inevitably disagree on what’s important.

So too with the Bible. Divinely inspired writers took up the story of God and God’s people, and wrote numerous books on the topic. And in the absence of an overall editor (would a library have an overall editor?) in the absence of an overall editor we have received a varied, rich, complex, fulsome, vexing, engaging, frustrating, inspiring, troubling, and glorious collection of sacred writings that we can now spend our life with. Thank God for that.

I share all this this morning to set the table for one of the primary dichotomies found in scripture: “Faith, without works, is dead” (from James 2) and “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (from Romans 3).

Having spend much of 2017 marinating in Martin Luther’s Reformation ideas, we might be predisposed to the favour the latter, by faith alone we are saved, not by any effort on our part, not by works, but by the grace and mercy of God. But then James speaks:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

In many ways, this is catnip for the United Church, and for Central in particular. Food, clothing, clean needles, condoms, advice—if we can get it, we will give it away. Going downstairs is like taking a trip to James 2. We begin with physical needs (food, warmth, companionship) then support (housing, harm reduction) and finally advocacy, encouraging people in the face of systems that often seem designed to keep them down. It’s the whole package.

But it’s far from all. Nearly three-quarters of the units next door receive some sort of support, because seniors living in poverty is one of the great scandals of our time. Down the hill, at the Mount Dennis satellite, we’re confronting a “food desert” with cooking classes, a pop-up market, and social enterprise incubation (yes, it’s as cool as it sounds).

Occasionally I’m called upon to offer support to other congregations—congregations who are trying find their way. And I always begin by describing the James 2 congregation I serve. I describe all the outreach we do, I give them all the confusing four-letter names we seem to favour (CKSR-WKNC-MDNC) and then the same question comes every time: “How big is your congregation?”

What would you say? Not big. Big enough. Could be bigger. I tell them that even a relatively small congregation can have a large impact when they put the focus on addressing the needs right outside their front door. There is no magic here. Just faithful people trying to help. Faithful people who read James 2 in the present tense: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.” What would you do?

(Just as an aside, congregations make other choices, like the congregation I met that gave over 90% of their building to a private school. They had lots of money, but complained that they had no room left over for any kind of programming, especially outreach to the community. We have made the opposite choice, and depend on generous givers instead of a private school who would gladly take over our building. Subtle stewardship plug ended.)

So back to the seeming contradiction between ‘saved by faith alone’ and ‘faith without works is dead.’ Can they both be true? Is there a way to capture the grace and mercy we receive (without any effort on our part) and the grace and mercy we should return in order to have a faith with meaning? I think the answer is in the question.

Like Ol’ Blue Eyes said, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t accept that your life with God is a gift freely given unless you can share the same gift with others. Put the other way, you can’t freely share with others unless you understand that all that you have was a gift to you.

And, of course, whenever it seems that competing verses have gotten us into some kind of mess, we return to the Bible for the answer. And more often than not, the answer is in the letters of St. Paul. And it makes good sense: Paul was helping non-Jews discover the God of Israel through a Jewish rabbi who insisted that faith was for everyone. Talk about a challenging job description!

And he spends plenty of time describing the outward marks of his faith and the extent to which they can be a barrier to new believers. He talks about the law, he talks about conversion, and he talks about faith and belief. And when he’s done talking about all these things, he settles on this: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5.6)

See what he did there? God is the source of all love, so faith expressing itself through love is accepting the love that God has for us while sharing that love with others. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

God sent Jesus to show is “faith expressing itself through love—love for the least and the last, love for tax-collectors and sinners, love for the gentiles who sought him out, love for the broken people he surrounded himself with, even love for those who took him to the cross. Paul said it, but no doubt Jesus whispered it in his ear:

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Amen.

*https://infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/contradictions.html”

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Fifteenth Sunday of Pentecost

Song of Solomon 2
8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”


If you’ve ever seen an old painting, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a religious painting.

For you see, there was a time (before the Renaissance of the fourteenth century) that almost everything painted had a religious theme. It helped that the church was the primary patron of the arts, but in general terms, religious themes were considered to be the only themes suitable for representation in art.

And even after this assumption changed, and people started painting the human figure for the sake of beauty alone, or some Roman ruin in nature, or some classical story or character—even after such a profound shift in subject—religious art was still being created. The Last Supper is a Renaissance painting, an obviously religious theme by a painter who was equally interested in showing his use of perspective and the brilliant way he could paint human figures.

According to the National Gallery in London, fully a third of their collection of Western art is religious in nature. And the topics are easy to predict: the crucifixion, the (aforementioned) Last Supper, and any story that involves a beautiful woman: David and Bathsheba, Susanna and the elders, Samson and Delilah. Perhaps the most popular (unsurprisingly) is the Madonna and Child, to the extent that I’m sure a third of the third of the religious paintings at the National Gallery depict Mary holding the baby Jesus.

(Incredibly, I’ve only ever seen two paintings of Joseph with the baby Jesus, and they’re both at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Seems it’s a theme that occurs in Latin American art, and a pleasing one to this dad.)

So I’ve taken you on this brief tour of religious art to highlight a bit of an anomaly that relates to our reading this morning: there are very few paintings based in the Song of Solomon. Yes, by the nineteenth century painters like Dante Rossetti would try, and Marc Chagall some decades later, but by-in-large the Song of Solomon was ignored over the span of Western art.

Why would this be? The primary reason, it would seem, is the way the book as been viewed through the ages. From the time it was included in the Jewish Bible down to the modern era of biblical interpretation, is has been viewed as allegory. Not a story of desire between two lovers, not a story about Solomon and one of his many wives, not even a guidebook on how to woo your lover (though it does a great job at that)—but a story that points to something else altogether—in other words—an allegory.

And it would have to. This book of the Bible that doesn’t mention God, or the law, or the covenant, must have some larger, symbolic meaning—so the earliest thinkers settled on the relationship between God and humanity. Later, Christian theologians would clarify this belief and say it’s an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his church, but the view is the same: this is about the passion God has for us and the passion we are urged to return.

I think you can see the issue for the visual artist. You could paint lovers or various creatures described in the book, but it’s not really about that. If it’s an allegory of mutual love between Creator and creature, that’s something that is hard to represent in oil or watercolour. I think there may be a way—or at least I may have uncovered one way—but before we look at that, we should spend a bit more time on the Song of Solomon.

I keep using the word “story,” but even that is a little misleading. It’s not a story in the sense that it has a plot or a series of events. It’s more of a dialogue between lovers, a “celebration of love,” and a loose collection of moments of “passion, descriptions of physical beauty, memories of past encounters, and longing for the lover's presence.”*

It’s more like a collection of scenes, meant to evoke a sense of the passion and mutuality that exists between these lovers. Let’s listen in again:

8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”

We can hear the passion and the mutuality, but there is something else. A few verses later she says “My beloved is mine and I am his,” (2.16) which adds the virtue of fidelity, the abiding sense that these lovers will remain faithful within the sensuousness of the place they find themselves. Suddenly, this is starting to sound like a wedding homily, but there is more.

Just a few chapters later, she picks up this theme again, but restates it to say “I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.” (7.10) According to Dr. Ellen Davis, this is a critical moment in scripture, a moment when this confident woman has reversed the curse found in the Book of Genesis. She explains it this way: After the fall, Eve is punished for her disobedience and God says "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And human history would seem to bear this out. But within the Song of Solomon, comes the reversal: “I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.”

In other words, there is something in these words that returns these lovers to the Garden of Eden, repairing the rift that begins with the apple and restores them to equality and mutuality once more. Add to that the abundance of nature in our passage—flowers, cooing doves, the early fruit of the fig tree and the fragrance of the vine—and we are transported to another theme in art that seems to locate our lovers once more: the peaceable kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom (which you have in your hands) is a common theme in art (Edward Hicks painted this painting 62 times!) and it is most often associated with Isaiah 11 (“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”) Hicks’ paintings often include settlers and their First Nations neighbours, or groups of Quakers (from his tradition) or simply the abundance of the natural world. In some ways it’s about a return to Eden, like the Song of Solomon, but it’s also about the age to come. It’s a glimpse of what God intents for us, what God will provide in the fulfilment of time.

And in this sense, we’re back to allegory. If the Song of Songs is about God and humanity, or Christ and his church, then what we’re introduced to is the way things ought to be. Or the way things will be in the age to come. There is living with passion, there is mutuality and the respect we extend to the people around us, there is fidelity to the relationship and the future we share, and there is the abiding sense that we are not only loved but sought after.

And it’s this passion that holds the key. Imagine each day God says to us “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.” See the world as I wish it to be. See the others among my beloved who are doing my work, remaking the world as we speak, bringing together heaven and earth. “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me,” and see the peaceable kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Amen.

*Kathryn M. Schifferdecker (workingpreacher.org)