Let me start out by saying what a delight it is to be here amongst the good people of First Congregational Church. I always look forward to the ways that we support and challenge each other as Christians seeking to be helpful and productive in this world.
May I also say that I am very impressed that you are here in this building when the World Cup Finals are playing out right now across the pond. Maybe we’ll see an increase in prayer this morning. We’ll also understand that as you bow your heads, you may be checking the score. Any cheering or boos will not be considered commentary on the preaching or the music. With any luck, this service will be over before the game ends.
When Jane and I got together for our annual meeting of the minds about this Summer’s sermons, we drew a bit of a blank. We’ve done so many good things together and we were wondering what might be helpful to our congregations. Then I put out there an idea that comes from a sermon given by Travis Norvell. Travis is the pastor of Judson Baptist Church in south Minneapolis. He was lamenting about how he never got a chance to preach at a graduation ceremony or baccalaureate. So, he brought the graduates up to the front, made them sit there in all of their 17 or 18-year-old grumpiness and gave them a sending off, knowing full well that they were going off to college. Here’s one of his paragraphs:
Over the course of the next four years I hope you too will develop a robust and lively faith. This faith will have seasons as you develop it on your own away from Judson. It will start with a Spring season where faith is simple, your faith will be tied to Judson or church camp. Then it will move to a season of Summer where your faith will be more pragmatic followed with lots of growth, this will be the seeds of “your” faith, coupled with new knowledge in and out of class. Then Fall will appear, with lots of ambivalence and ambiguity. You’ll question and reject nearly everything. You may even despair and think all is hopeless. If you don’t give up, if you can just hang on, and keep pushing you’ll arrive at a place of harmony in the season of Winter where you integrate all your experiences and learning and commitments into your own faith and life. And then guess what? You get to do it all over again and again and again throughout your life. Folk like to think they’re always in Stage Four, Winter. But let me tell you, you and I know they’re still in Stage One for sure.
Each season has something to teach us. Each has its own wisdom, it’s own perspective. So, we decided that we would each take a season for these next four Sundays.
In which season do you linger most? The Springtime season of new beginnings? The Summer season of embracing new learnings and developing your own ripe fruit of pragmatism? The Autumn where the old ways no longer work but you can’t find the thing that will make you work? The temptation for fight or flight is high here. Or are you in the wizened Winter age where all suddenly makes sense because you have stuck with it through thick and thin?
Think about that this month. We’ll give you a Sunday to consider each season and hopefully you can celebrate the wisdom each one brings. The first season to look at it Springtime.
That season of new beginnings.
That season of hope.
That season of possibility after a long pregnancy.
That season of joy when the crocuses finally bloom.
That season when we frantically plan for our garden.
That season where we forget all about the weeding ahead of us.
That season of blissful ignorance and ideology. It’s where a certain courage comes from, probably that part of abandon that doesn’t succumb to the prefrontal cortex which doesn’t fully develop until we’re like 25. It’s the season that brings forth poetry, full of lust and opportunity. The writer of the Song of Songs pens some of it. Do you remember how six years ago, we did a steamy Summer series from the Song of Songs? We’ll get to that.
I love Springtime not so much because of the flowers, but because of maple syrup. Most of you know my Spring obsession. For the past dozen years or so, I have so looked forward to Spring. As the temperature rises above freezing for the first time, sometimes as early as January, but most often late February or early March, I will shovel a path to the maple tree in the front yard with a long extension cord and drill a two-inch hole and tap in a hollow spile. If I’ve timed it just right, the tree will leak a bit of it’s sap—making its annual run from its Winter dormancy to feed the branches for another season’s growth. I put one of the milk jugs I’ve been hoarding all Winter and repeat the process sixteen more times. Seventeen taps in six trees in three yards—thank you kind neighbors. Every day, sometimes two or three times a day, I will empty those jugs into coolers in our backyard. When I have enough to fill our two cauldrons (about forty gallons or so), I’ll set a fire in the backyard, bring the pots to a boil and wait for the water to steam away.
There’s nothing like sitting out by a fire in the Spring, especially if you’ve been holed up inside for the past 4-6 months. If the smoke is not coming toward you, you breathe in the crisp fresh air, watch the sun rise and set, welcome the birds back, see what long lost item emerges from beneath the melting snow. You can lose yourself in the fire’s flames, the foamy boil, remembering the year that has passed. As you sit around the fire, you contemplate what the new year has in store for you. Not the new year that began back in the January tundra, but the new year, the new opportunity that awaits us each Spring. I invite church folk and others to join me in the vigil, which is as much about the contents of the pot as it is about the relationships of those watching it. You don’t have to stir the pot, just keep it boiling. Dancing and singing around the pot is not necessary, but it is encouraged. About 8-12 hours later, when there’s only a fraction of liquid left, we filter it and bring it inside to finish up on the stove. We’ll yield anywhere from 1–3 gallons of maple syrup on a good day. Those 17 taps this year yielded close to 15 gallons of pure maple syrup. Anyone who comes over and hangs out with us gets to go home with a jar of syrup. These are our housewarming and Christmas gifts for the rest of the year.
We start out having to shovel off the fire pit and donning parkas. We end the season in shorts and bare feet. Because of the generosity of friends, I’ve never had to buy wood. And I’ve even been able to get others interested in the obsession. After a long Winter when nothing seems to grow, the maple syrup is a reminder that life happens again, that hope abounds, and that when we coax and nurture the land, and prayerfully surround the season with hope, then we can be reborn.
I’ve had many a church meeting around the fire, many a heart-to-heart. And while we don’t always come away agreeing, we always come away with a little bit of the sweet nectar that points us in the right direction. What New Year’s resolutions did you make in the Winter or Spring? Are you still keeping to them? There is a force out there, what we sometimes call God, that pushes us toward rebirth, toward hope, toward freedom. But it needs to be kindled and nurtured in order for it to truly bear fruit. I think this is what the writer of the Song of Songs was after, too.
Phyllis Trible in her book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality writes that the Song of Songs is the redemption of the Garden of Eden. Whereas the third chapter of Genesis expels humanity from the Garden, Song of Songs welcomes us back with a come hither wink. After Adam and Eve eat the apple in Genesis, they are ashamed of their nakedness. Not so in the Song of Songs. There is no shame at all. There is only joy and longing and excitement. Trible writes:
It speaks from lover to lover with whispers of intimacy, shouts of ecstasy, and silences of consummation. At the same time, its unnamed voices reach out to include the world in their symphony or eroticism. This movement between the private and the public invites all companions to enter a garden of delight. (p.144)
The book has three voices: A woman, her shepherd lover and the daughters of Jerusalem. The woman is the most prominent throughout the book. The Shulamite sings to her lover, saying in the second chapter that she is the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley. She’s ripe. In the Garden of Eden, the tasting of the fruit brought the first couple’s downfall. In the Song of Songs, her beloved is compared to the apple tree, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. She delights in apples and raisins and figs and flowers. The woman sings of her beloved. Her beloved responds with words of affection and love. The daughters of Jerusalem, the Greek chorus, are told to let love happen in its own rhythm, without being forced: “I adjure you O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field that you stir not up nor awaken love until it is ready.” (2:7)
In Genesis, the animals, especially the snake, denote danger. In the Song of Songs, the animals leap and dance along with the human actors. They are emblems of joy. “The voice of my beloved, behold he cometh leaping upon the mountains skipping o’er the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.” (2:8–9)
Renita Weems, in her book What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon writes,
It is impossible to keep up with the lovers. But isn’t that just like love, certainly new lusty love? Time blurs. Personalities mesh. Speech trails off. Emotions are hijacked. The scenery goes out of focus. . . . Something in her poetry convinces me that the Shulamite was young when she was in the throes of composing her poems to the shepherd. She seems convinced that love will rescue her from a miserable past. But it doesn’t. Your past isn’t something for you to be rescued from. Your past is what you learn from as you figure our how to integrate those lessons into the you you’re still becoming.” (p. 42)
The first glimpses of love and of truth are some of the most profound. They are imprinted on our minds and hearts. So are our first impressions of evil and betrayal. We spend our lives trying to stay away from that which terrifies us and running toward that which feels like home. The Springtime lessons are what drive us, it’s where our truth has its origins.
That’s one of the reasons the family separation at the border is so troubling. This is the Springtime of their lives, the time when we should be embedding a sense of trust and hope and security in the minds of our young. What will those separated and detained children grow up to be? What bitterness and disconnect with loved ones will later manifest itself in violence and chaos? These families need to be reunited so that they can plant their gardens and sow the seeds of hope in their young lives. Let’s join with the Shulamite and give them welcome and hope for a new tomorrow.
What is your earliest memory?
Was it good or bad or neither?
Is there a part of you that runs there whether you want to or not?
What is your deepest desire?
I invite you to think about that this week.
Return to your teenage self or the self that’s even younger.
What did that child want?
What did they need?
What did they believe?
What did you celebrate?
What fear froze you?
Now couple that with what might be gestating in you right now awaiting its birth?
For lo the Winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The one of your desire waits for you, to celebrate your rebirth. Like the daughters of Jerusalem, may we celebrate your potential and presence among us, ever anticipating what you will reveal to us.