Sunday, September 2, 2012

Yams, Turkeys, and the Gospel Truth

The Rev. Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church
Proper 17, Year B
Original posting

Anthropologist Margaret Mead recorded this curious little saying of the Arapesh people: “Your own mother, your own sister, your own pigs, your own yams that you have piled up, you may not eat. Other people’s mothers, other people’s sisters, other people’s pigs, other people’s yams that they have piled up, you may eat.”

Obviously there are several directions a sermon might take off in from here. Up, somehow, is probably what you’re hoping. For our purposes, we’ll just note that Arapesh women seem to have been commodities. But the Arapesh hardly have a corner on that market. In fact, right there in the Bible you can read about the leaders of one tribe making peace with another tribe by giving them their daughters for wives. Apparently it was polite for the other tribesmen to return the favor. Although I guess it wasn’t very polite to the daughters.

That was a long time ago in a faraway land. But if you think that this kind of “giving away” of a daughter in marriage has nothing to do with the blubbering dad who “gives his daughter away” in a modern wedding, well, bless your heart.

To wit, in the 1994 edition of Emily Post on Marriage (not exactly an ancient text) we find that the well mannered bride, possibly because she still functions as the gift of one tribesman to another, has a special role to play. She must, and I quote, “try to understand and accept the attitude of her future family (whatever it may be), and she must not stand inflexibly upon what she unwittingly considers to be her own family’s rights.” Ms. Post, as you may have guessed, gave no such instruction to the groom. Haven’t tribesmen always given away their daughters as peace offerings to create a little goodwill?

Now if you’ve long dreamed of having your father walk you down the aisle here at Christ Church and deliver you to the arm of a handsome beau, don’t worry. Forbidding this practice isn’t a liturgical ditch I’m willing to die in. Otherwise by now I would be… well… dead. But it still seems worthwhile to note that the roots of some traditions aren’t as deep or as distant as we’d like to believe, and they’re anything but obscure.

To be fair though, we should balance things out by poking something in the eye of modern, liberated folks too. About the same time Ms. Post’s book was published, this advice appeared in the style section of the New York Times: “Women on the way up should avoid associating with ‘unsuccessful turkeys,’ even if they happen to be friends. Leaving your friends behind isn’t disloyalty. You are going to be judged by the company you keep. Seek out the people who can help you. Men have known this for years, and we are playing in their arena.” Of course. We can deal with the age old problem of making women commodities by making everyone a commodity. Man, woman, friend, stranger, tell me what you can do for me, and I’ll tell you whether I have any use for you.

Fortunately yams and turkeys aren’t the only options available to us when it comes to the treatment of women or any other person really. We could actually love them, you know. 

Right around the middle of your Bible, written in a time and culture in which women were down at the yam end of things it seems, a book of love poetry appears, a book whose primary voice is a woman’s, interestingly enough. And it’s a book in which all the conventions and economies and assumptions that establish and maintain the power of one person over another evaporate, because two people are madly in love, each helpless to precisely the same degree.

The Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon has long troubled readers. It’s not just the racy, explicitly sexual imagery of the book (although today it should be rated PG13 at best). The problem is that there’s no mention of God in the book.

Since this is so, there have been two strains of interpretation for the book. One is the allegorical. Since at least the second century, Jewish scholars have read Song of Solomon as a love poem about God and Israel. And Christians have interpreted it as being about Christ and the church, or Christ and the individual soul. The story must be an allegory of something spiritual, something godly if it’s in the Bible, right?

The other approach is more historical. It insists that the book is simply a collection of love poems between Solomon and a peasant bride. Most contemporary scholars guess that the poems weren’t Solomon’s, rather they originated as secular love poetry. They look a lot like Egyptian, Arabic, and Syrian love poetry of the same time. But the question of why this book is in the Bible remains.

Conventional wisdom says we must choose between the two interpretations. But what if love really is divine? What if every instance of the self gift that is love, offers humanity a glimpse of God, or a glimpse into God’s economy? What if the poems really are about the love between one human being and another, and that’s why they’re about God?

Anyone who’s ever been in love, or anyone who’s ever watched someone else fall helplessly in love knows that the part of the self that calculates and makes judgments and the part of the self that is swept away by Eros seem to be quite distinct. Here’s what I mean. When one person falls in love with another, hopefully he’s regularly asking himself things like, “I wonder if I’ll regret this in five years?” or “Is this someone I’d be happy to introduce to my grandmother?” But the part of the self that asks “What’s in this for me?” kinds of questions, important as they are, is not the part that falls in love. Romantic love isn’t about calculation and rationality. And great love poetry has always shown us this is so.

So usually we Christians are quick to point out there are several kinds of love in the Bible, and we emphasize their distinctness. There’s philia for friendship love, eros for romantic love, and agape is that selfless love that is the highest of Christian virtues. But agape is often translated “charity”, which conjures up the image of somebody writing a check to the United Way. Curiously, that image hasn’t provided much traction for the poets.

And St Paul famously said that if he gave away all his possessions to the poor, if he gave over even his own body but did not have love, agape, charity, he gained nothing. No, at the heart of every form of Christian love—especially agape—is the self gift, the offering or giving over of our deepest desires and affections to another person. If the United Way mis-spends my donation I might get annoyed, but my heart probably won’t be broken. Caritas is something else.

Thomas Merton said that the opposite of love is to treat another human being as a product rather than a person, and in doing so, we act as “products” ourselves. “We size each other up,” he says, “and make deals with a view to our own profit. We do not give ourselves in love, we make a deal that will enhance our own product, and therefore no deal is final.” Sound familiar to all you former friends of unsuccessful turkeys?

But Merton says we were created for more. He says, “We are not just machines that have to be cared for and driven carefully until they run down… Life is not a straight horizontal line between two points, birth and death. Life curves upward to a peak of intensity, a high point of value and meaning, at which… the person transcends himself or herself in encounter, response, and communion with another. It is for this that we came into the world—this communion and self-transcendence. We do not become fully human until we give ourselves to each other in love.” In other words, we live in order to love, and until we learn to love we will not be fully alive.

Oh, by the way, remember that Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk. Which suggests to me that a chaste single person who is fully alive can read the Song of Soloman and say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.”

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Strange words to read in a Christian church 25 centuries after they were written. Strange words unless we really believe that we are called to fall in love, called to give ourselves over in love not only to God, but to other people in this world, friends and lovers, but also somehow even to strangers and enemies. Such is the goal Jesus set before us. And such is the truth of his cross.

We still live in a world in which people can be commodities and love can be reduced to a form of currency. And in a world like ours, it may just be that the words of a couple of star crossed lovers from centuries before the time of Jesus can help open up the Christian good news to our lives. The good news that we are not products to be exchanged in a market. We are creatures who cannot come fully alive until we give ourselves to another in love. The cross is simply the perfect shape of such love in its ultimate form. “Having loved his own who were in the world,” we’re told in John’s gospel, “Jesus loved them to the end.”

Or, to use language again from the Song of Solomon, a few lines near the end of the book, “Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave… If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.” That’s the gospel truth, Christians. The gospel truth. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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