“We live most of our days in the world of struggle, of pain, of labor – of duty, and responsibility and sacrifice – of simpler joys, ordinary beauty, modest pleasure. But there is here in our tradition there is another voice. A reminder that sometimes we are graced by nothing more or less than delight, ecstasy, wonder. That deep in the heart of the Holy One, deep in our hearts, is a desire simply to be with one another.”
St Mark’s Capitol Hill, Washington, DC
August 30, 2015
If you were following Facebook last week – and if you have plenty of nerdy church friends like I do – you probably saw this hilarious post from one enterprising pastor.
It was a creative strategy for fundraising. An innovative entry into her congregation’s silent auction. Item #61, Generously donated by the Reverend Meg Barnhouse.
And what was the prize?
The winning bidder received the exclusive right to block one hymn for a year. One hymn, never sung, on permanent sabbatical, for a full 12 months. The power never to hear those notes, those words, that make you crazy!
Which hymn would it be for you?
Which would you pay big bucks to never hear again?
If we had this auction at my childhood church, for sure the winning hymn – or losing hymn, perhaps – would have been Out of the Ivory Palaces.
A schmaltzy revival tune that my pastor loved. We sang it at least once a month, sometimes more often, and the organist’s eyes would roll when she saw it on the bulletin once again.
These days, my Facebook friends have a decidedly Episcopal slant to them, and so one of the frequent contenders for “blocked hymn winner” was number 541 – Come, Labor On.
Come, Labor on, who dares stand idle on the harvest plain. While all around him waves the golden grain? And to each servant does the Master say, “Go work today.”
This hymn from the missionary movement of the late 19th century sends us out to do God’s work — the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few so you better get busy – God says, with a hefty dose of Anglican responsibility.
This heaviness, this framing of faith as duty is part of our heritage. “It is meet and right and our bounden duty that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee” … so begins the Rite One Eucharistic prayer.
So no wonder that many of my friends wanted to block this hymn, a hymn that tries to present faith as an adventure, but comes across with a more grumpy tone.
These days, Christians have a perhaps well-deserved reputation for being boring, obsessed with rules, and not a lot of fun to be around. With some notable exceptions, the life of faith can come across as a bit of a drag.
And while we progressive Christians may not be so obsessed with rules about drinking or sex or literal belief in the Bible, we have our own high expectations, our own rules, our own duties.
Equality, diversity, social activism, care for the poor, and the list would go on and on and on and on and on.
It seems unavoidable, this framing of faith as responsibility.
Even in our Gospel for today, a classic text in which Jesus and his friends set aside many of the rules of their day, set aside the traditions of the elders – even very smart traditions like washing your hands before you eat.
Even here, where Jesus is carving out a huge new landscape of possibility about how people can interact with one another. Worried much less about physical defilement and purity … and much more about what is in the heart.
Even here, for Jesus, the question is not whether there are rules, responsibilities, duties – but which ones are more important.
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Jesus is quoted as saying. A quote that Christians used against Jews, Protestants against Catholics, one Episcopal church against another … in an endless debate about which things fall into which category
What is a commandment of God, and what is human tradition?
The battles of faith are fought along this line. What must we cling to at almost any cost, and what can we set aside? When should we dig in our heels, when should we just let it go? What is true, and good and eternal; what is broken, imperfect, passing away. For what would we lay down our life? And what are willing simply to bear?
These are hard questions, good questions, important questions – without which the power of religion so often goes awry. And so in every generation we struggle again.
What is a commandment of God, and what is human tradition?
But each one of us can only struggle so much.
I don’t know about you, but I live most every day of my life in some sort of struggle – to be a good partner, son, friend; to be faithful in my choices about what I do, and eat and say and buy; struggle in my work to be wise, and compassionate and courageous and smart; struggle to have enough time, enough money, enough energy to do it all.
Come, Labor On – can sometimes feel like an adventure; the most important adventure in the world. But sometimes it can feel like a drag, too.
Sometimes I’m ready to follow Jesus into the harvest.
Sometimes I’d rather block that pesky hymn.
But there is another side of faith – that comes to us today as a breath of fresh air.
“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,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
Today is our one and only chance in the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings to hear from the Song of Songs. It is both the story of passionate human love, and an allegory of God’s love for us.
Erotic, physical, embodied love – the kind that makes our voice tremble and fills our stomach with butterflies; the kind that makes us melt in the arms of our beloved; and drives us to seek the one we desire. The kind of love that takes our breath away.
That intensity, that utter longing, that joy and pleasure – it’s here, in the Bible, scents and sounds and tastes and body parts connecting – an image of divine love.
God appears in this text as a gazelle, frolicking through the hillsides, giddy with excitement, peeking in on the beloved one’s chamber.
Now, we can get embarrassed about all this. We’re not sure quite what to say. We don’t really know what to do with love like this – at least not in church.
We know so much about other kinds of love, wondrous love, that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul; the love that so loved the world — that sent his only-begotten into its midst to live, and die. We know about the love that heals. About love that moves us to justice.
But there is here another kind of love. A love – that simply is delighted in us.
A love – that, no matter what, wants to be near. A playful, passionate, intense love – a love that desires us, and meets us in our desires.
This is not our usual image of God.
Not our typical responsibility-oriented deity.
And so let’s be a bit playful and step into this allegory, for a while.
Take your part –
What does your divine beloved whisper in your ear…
Arise, my fair one, and come away … to where, how will you get there…
What winters do you wish were past…
What storms do you hope will be gone soon…
What song does your beloved sing…
In this allegory world there is nothing to do today.
No project. No task. No calendar or checklist. No deadline. No chores.
No laundry. No responsibilities or duties or labor. Only love.
We know this is not all of life.
We live most of our days in the world of struggle, of pain, of labor – of duty, and responsibility and sacrifice – of simpler joys, ordinary beauty, modest pleasure.
But there is here in our tradition there is another voice. A reminder that sometimes we are graced by nothing more or less than delight, ecstasy, wonder. That deep in the heart of the Holy One, deep in our hearts, is a desire simply to be with one another.
To bask in the presence of the one we desire. To feel the touch of the one who takes your breath away.
So please do Come, Labor on, there is work to do.
But don’t forget also to come away, come away and delight in the song of the turtledove, and let the creator of this universe delight in you.