Sunday, August 30, 2009

"More Lovely Than the Dawn"


God as Divine Lover

A Sermon by Michael J. Bayly

Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ

August 30, 2009



I had the honor of delivering the “message” this morning at Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ. As regular readers will recognize, in writing this sermon I borrowed extensively from two previous Wild Reed posts: Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Poem and Sometimes I Wonder. I also wrote the “Acknowledging Our Humaness” reading (which the community says together) before the gospel reading, which I always find a beautiful and meaningful experience.

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First Reading: Song of Songs 2: 8-13

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountain, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: 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 turtle dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.


Contemporary Reading: Jean Houston (from her book The Search for the Beloved)

Eros has a mission with the soul. Without Eros, the soul cannot grow; the psyche remains infantile. Eros gives psyche its yearning, its impetus, its desire for the fullness of life. The lure of Eros may not necessarily be sexual, but it is often a lure of “muchness,” a lure into deep gestating patterns of reality where you see the great forms of things, the Patterns that Connect. This lure call you to the places of re-creation in the soul where you are seeded, spiced, excited, stimulated, evoked into becoming. You become much, much more than you were, and you create much, much more than you could have before. Eros connects the personal to something beyond, and brings the beyond into personal experience. . . . Without Eros in some form, creativity suffocates; the soul does not grow. . . . Creativity is grounded in the longing for the beloved, the extended archetype of the self within the soul.


Acknowledging Our Humaness: Lover God, we give thanks and praise for the gifts, responsibilities, and challenges of embodiment. Through this wondrous experience you call us to places of re-creation within and among us. Sometimes we hesitate in journeying to such places and experiencing the fullness of life they offer. Instead, we prefer the comfort and safety of stagnation. Yet still you call us into becoming all we can be as embodied, relational individuals and communities. We thank you for this call, Beloved One, and seek your guidance and strength as we strive to lovingly respond to it.


Gospel Reading: Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written:

This people honors me with their lips,
But their hearts are far from me;
In vain do they worship me,
Teaching human precepts as doctrines.

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that be going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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Homily: “More Lovely Than the Dawn”: God as Divine Lover

During my college years in Australia in the mid-1980s, there was a popular song called “You I Know.” Written by Neil Finn and performed by Jenny Morris, this particular song includes the following lyrics:

Sometimes I wonder if I know myself
as well as I know you.
But it’s you I know
and no one else will do.
Yes, it’s you I know,
with all you put me through.
When I was drifting down,
you pulled me up again.
And it’s you I know,
you’ll love me to the end.


I’ve been very much aware of this song as it features on a Jenny Morris greatest hits CD that’s currently serving as my workout music. And when I hear “You I Know” I not only hear the words of a love song between two people, but also a spiritual ode, a psalm, if you like – one that could be sung by any one of us to our own deep sacred core, that presence within that Viktor Frankl calls the “partner of [our] most intimate soliloquies.”

There’s a sense of trust and joy in the awareness and embracing of this sacred presence. And as a gay man this is something I don’t find surprising in the least. After all, gay people by nature possess, I believe, a unique aptitude for ecstatic, joyful approaches to spirituality. Thus I find it both natural and helpful to image God, that sacred partner of my most intimate soliloquies, as a lover – an enthusiastic lover who yearns for me to feel his loving touch, his transforming embrace. In the language of the mystics, such an ecstatic image serves as the “Beloved of the soul” – and as a potential mirror image of God, the Divine Lover.

Some may find such an image shocking. But it’s really not that outlandish. After all, throughout Christian history there have always been mystics and saints who have embodied highly erotic experiences of the sacred.

We heard in our contemporary reading Jean Houston’s contention that the source of such erotic experiences, Eros, has a “mission with the soul.” And that “without Eros in some form, creativity suffocates; [and] the soul does not grow.” This is because Eros gives us the “desire for the fullness of life” – something our brother Jesus talked about and yearns for us to embody.

But what exactly is Eros?

For theologian Diarmuid Ó Murchú, Eros is the foundational energy or force that brings everything in creation into being. In their book Holy Eros, James and Evelyn Whitehead describe Eros as the “mysterious Presence at the heart of the world.” It’s a presence that’s known “through and beyond sexual arousal,” and the “vital energy” of this presence “courses through the world, enlivening and healing hearts.” The Whiteheads note that this presence “comes as gift, with a power that creates, sustains, reconciles, and heals. It is a presence that engages us personally, leading humanity beyond narrow self-interest into fuller participation in life.” In short, Eros is a presence that defies simple definition, but as theologian Michael Himes reminds us, the “least inadequate” way we have to describe it is as radical love.

You may recall that Jean Houston refers to the “lure of Eros,” which is another way of talking about the call of radical love to places within our lives and relationships that evoke and facilitate transformation – both personal and communal.

For some of our spiritual ancestors, this “lure of Eros” was indeed sexual. And in the case of St. John of the Cross, it was homosexual. Take for instance John’s beautiful poem, “On a Dark Night.” In setting this poem to music in 1994, singer/songwriter Loreena McKennitt observed that it is “an exquisite, richly metaphoric love poem between [John] and his god. It could pass as a love poem between any two, at any time.”

Of course as a gay man, the thing that appeals to me most about John’s poem is that it depicts his lover as another man.

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
– oh, happy chance! –
I went forth without being observed

. . . Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.


Toby Johnson writes that the allegorical explanation of John’s beautiful “On a Dark Night” is that it is about the stage of depression in the religious life, the so-called ‘dark night of the soul.’ Yet he is adamant that there is nothing in the poem about depression or spiritual suffering. Rather, it’s about sexual passion. Perhaps the lover and beloved represent the soul and Christ, says Johnson, but it’s still a homoerotic image.

Believe it or not, the Bible too has its share of homoerotic imagery. There’s the “beloved disciple” resting his head upon the breast of Jesus; there’s David and Jonathan; and there’s the Song of Songs – a book from the Hebrew scriptures that biblical scholar Paul Johnson describes as the “Bible’s gay love poem.” We heard as our first reading this morning an excerpt from Song of Songs, which is sometimes erroneously called the Song of Solomon.

Sadly, although there are male homoerotic texts, such as Song of Songs, to be unearthed, there seem to be no female ones. There may have been a time when the Hebrews were not totally homophobic, but they appear to have always been totally patriarchal and thus sexist. As a result, female encounters of the divine mediated and expressed through female perspectives and experiences – including lesbian perspectives and experiences – are not part of the Hebrew tradition. This is indeed tragic.

Now, perhaps like me, you’ve been told that the images and descriptions contained in Song of Songs symbolize Yahweh’s love for his chosen people, and/or Christ’s love for his Church. The reality is, however, that this ancient text, like John of the Cross’ “On a Dark Night,” is about sexual passion. It’s a highly-charged erotic poem – one that clearly has been a source of confusion, even scandal, for both Jews and Christians. Paul Johnson spent twenty years with fragments of the original Hebrew text, discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1995 he produced a translation that clears up the confusion.

Here’s the upshot: First, the correct name for this work is The Canticle. It was written in 920 B.C.E. as a love poem addressed by Asher, one of Solomon’s sons (and apparently black) to a shepherd-soldier named Caleh. It’s a poem that in its original form would have been sung in homes and taverns at a time when the Hebrew people were not yet publicly homophobic. Apparently, such poems were quite common in certain cultures of the Near East at that time.

Here’s a translation of part of The Canticle as originally written:

How delightful you are, Caleh,
My lover-man, my other half.
Your pleasing masculine love is better than wine.
The smell of your body is better than perfume.
Your moustache is waxed with honeycomb.
Honey and milk are under your tongue.
The scent of your clothing is like the smell of Lebanon.


Unfortunately, this beautiful homoerotic text was later edited by Jewish scribes sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries. They basically turned a gay love poem into a heterosexual marriage song – a popular literary genre of that time. The result of such editing is the rather confused text we have today – a text in which the speaker seems constantly to change, and the beloved is sometimes male, sometimes female, and often of uncertain gender.

Of course, some are outraged by the suggestion that anything in the Bible – let alone something so ancient as the Song of Songs – may actually have been inspired by God’s transforming presence within the loving and sexual relationship between two men. Yet the reality remains: most Hebrew scholars admit that the speaker-lover in 85% of the poem is clearly male, as is the beloved.

The attempts to obscure this reality are just another example of people’s fear not only of homosexuality but also of homoeroticism in human life – including the spiritual life.

But isn’t the idea of homoeroticism and, by extension, homosexual relations condemned by Jesus as “fornication”? No. The exact meaning of the word that’s translated as “fornication” is still unclear. What we can say is that it’s basically concerned with exploitive sexual relations, such as prostitution. And as Jeremiah Bartram points out in his commentary on today’s gospel reading, the “sexual evils that [Jesus] includes in his catalogue of perversity can apply equally to heterosexuals or to gays: fornication, adultery, and licentiousness. These three vices are orientation-neutral.”

I’d like to conclude by saying that in any discussion of the erotic in one’s spiritual life it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal is union with the Divine. I may visualize a handsome man when thinking of my “Beloved,” but I know full well that if I stay focused solely on the physical than that becomes problematic, spiritually. Any image of the “Beloved of the Soul” should serve as a focal point, an icon, if you will; and, like all icons, its purpose is to attract us so as to direct and encourage us ever further into the mystery that is Divine Love. Staying forever at the surface level doesn’t facilitate that wondrous transformation spoken about by St. John of the Cross, as well as by many other mystics across time, cultures, and religions.

I guess it’s like one’s relationship with one’s earthly beloved – one’s husband or wife or partner. For the record, I’m not in a relationship. But if I were I would like to think that as the years go by and both my beloved and I age, our love will have deepened to the point where we wouldn’t be seeking to satisfy our physical needs with others whose looks have yet to fade. We would have gone beyond surface things, while still being open to acknowledging and appreciating them.

Catholic author John McNeill once wrote: “Gay people constantly are in a process of discernment on how to integrate their growth in intimacy with God with their search to live out human intimacy in its fullness.”

How true! And how exhausting this process can be. I mean, it really is never-ending, isn’t it? And not just for gay people, of course, but for everyone. Still, it is more of a challenge for gay folks, I believe, as within so many secular and ecclesial institutions, homo-negativity and homophobia remain rife. Accordingly, our experiences of God in our lives and relationships are frequently dismissed and maligned. We’re told to distrust and view as life-denying our discernment of God’s call to seek and experience fullness of life – a fullness that for most of us involves seeking and building relationships that are lovingly and sexually expressed.

Yet Matthew Fox reminds us that as gay people we have a “keen awareness that . . . a healthy spiritual life must be holistic; it cannot be based on a denial and rejection of the necessary sexual component in our search for intimacy with God.”

For many people – past and present, male and female, gay and straight – this journey toward intimacy with God, and by extension with self and others, has been reflected through and enhanced by the image of God as Divine Lover.

Yes, God the Divine Lover: the constant companion, the Beloved; always present deep within and all around us – guiding, accompanying, supporting, loving.


. . . Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!


May each one of us know the touch and embrace of the Beloved, of God our Divine Lover. Amen.


Michael J. Bayly
Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ
August 30, 2009


For other homilies I’ve delivered, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany
Praying for George W. Bush
On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers
Something We Dare Call Hope
Soul Deep
Disarming the Weapons Within
The Harvest Within the Heart
Somewhere in Between
Dispatches from the Periphery

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
God is Love
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Getting It Right
Making Love, Giving Life
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Sacrament of . . . Relationships
Dew[y]-Kissed
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 2)
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
Love is Love
And Love is Lord of All
Charis
Cherish
Lover of Us All
Just Now and Then
One Fearless Kiss
The Holy Pleasure of Intimacy
The Gifts of Homosexuality
The Challenge to Become Ourselves


5 comments:

Jayden Cameron said...

An extraordinarily beautiful sermon, Michael, thanks so much. It has made my Sunday, today, August 30th (skipped Mass, so this has made up for it!).

paularuddy said...

Very beautiful reflection, Michael. I like what you say about eros. Without it, no verve or drive or joy.

William D. Lindsey said...

Michael, thanks for sharing this beautiful sermon. Interestingly enough, a friend of mine who is a Baptist pastor called me last week to say he was giving a sermon on the same topic.

I have sent him a link to your sermon.

This friend pastors an African-American Baptist church in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He is working with his congregation on issues of inclusion and sexual orientation, and wants to preach about love as the basis for that work.

I am sure your sermon will be of great interest to him.

brian gerard said...

A poingnant, beautiful and intelligent reflection, Michael. Given that August 30 is my birthday, as you know, this feels like a great gift. Thanks

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, everyone, for your positive feedback. And William, I'm especially happy that my homily may be of help to your Baptist pastor friend.

Peace,

Michael