Becoming the Beloved Community Song of Songs; Genesis 22 I want to state categorically that our basic desire is to be loved

. I doubt this comes as much of a surprise to anyone. We long to be shown that we are valuable, worthy, desirable, gifted and unique. No one escapes this. No matter how strange or seemly distorted someone’s expression may seem to be you can be sure that there is a space within them that longs to be loved. We carry a built in hope for the Beloved Community. Before we look at our part and role in this community I want to spend some time in God’s perspective on love and community. The biblical book Song of Songs or sometimes titled Song of Solomon carries with it a controversial history. This book does not explicitly mention God, prayer or any religious expression of worship. The book’s sole concern is about the intimacy and intensity of love. Responding to the unique nature of the book one commentator notes how some consider it the highest expression of God’s love while others view it as common erotic literature from the ancient world. In many ways it can be read as a marriage of the two views. That this book addresses human love can hardly be denied. The chapters carry on about desire and longing. Both the man and woman offer images and fantasies about each other as they wait to meet each other in private places. Expressions of deep romance are offered abundantly. The woman expresses that she is ‘faint with love’ while the man confesses that she has ‘stolen his heart’. This story however, is one of anticipation not consummation. In one chapter the woman is waked by her lover’s knocking at the door. She can’t wait to see him and her heart begins to pound but when she opens the door he is not there.

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We know that if this book is only read as a story of human love then it will likely lead to frustration or unrealistic expectations. The emotional energy expended between the two lovers is simply unsustainable. There remains something in this story that we still long for, that we are still anticipating. And embedded in this book are phrases and images that call to mind the relationship between God and God’s people. The opening paragraph of the book already establishes this imagery. The first verse refers to the whole book as Solomon’s Song of Songs. Solomon is known primarily for two things. First, Solomon is known for his wisdom as the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes attribute to him. Secondly, Solomon is known for building the Temple. In the Temple God communed with Israel through the Holy of Holies. Holy of Holies and Song of Songs are the same type of phrase. They both point to the highest expression of something. They could be translated as the most holy place or the greatest of all songs, the song from which all songs come into being. The following lines, which were already read, create even more associations with being in God’s holiness. Verses 2-4 read, 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth— for your love is more delightful than wine. 3 Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! 4 Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers.

This passage describes the experience of the woman, the filling of her senses; of taste, touch, sight, smell and sound. Though we may not think of it often the role of the senses is central to worship both in Temple and even today. Think of a Sunday with communion and footwashing. The service touches all of our senses. The same is true in Israel where sacrifices were tasted and incense smelled and fire was felt and hopefully

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then as today intimacy was experienced. From the very beginning and throughout the book we find a subtle layer of meaning added that draws the reader’s mind into images of how God relates to the world. From this layer of meaning a radical concept emerges of the Beloved Community of God. In the Beloved Community of God both the one and the whole are valued and unique. We know from other places in the Bible that God often views all of Israel as his bride or lover. What arises in the Song of Songs and what is developed more fully in the New Testament is that God is someone that we may as individuals seek a personal intimate relationship with and that God also wants, that God desires to be intimate with each one of us. If we are to become the Beloved Community then we must understand that each one of us is beloved of God. Listen to the words of the lover, 9 you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, ... 10 How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume more than any spice! 9 my dove, my perfect one, is unique, the only daughter of her mother, the favorite of the one who bore her. The young women saw her and called her blessed; God loves you singularly, uniquely. If the Bible is to be believed then God is able to love you as if you are the only one. This is of course hard for us to believe because it sounds like God is just giving each one of us the same line. How is it that God can love each one of us singularly and uniquely? There are other images that do make sense. One image of God is as a parent who loves each child equally. We receive the image of the Good Shepherd who will leave the flock of sheep and seek out and find the one individual

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because of their value and worth in the shepherd’s eyes. But what of God as a lover, as a spouse? How can each one of us understand God in this way? Here we can begin with Mary who consented to receive God’s Spirit and as a result carried God within her. She understood herself as uniquely loved by God and as a result conceived and birthed that love in her life. This imagery is perhaps found most distinctly in the mystics of the medieval period. Listen to St. John of Cross’s desire for God as he begins his work on spiritual formation, Wherein the soul sings of the happy chance which it had in passing through the dark night of faith, in detachment and purging of itself, to union with the Beloved. On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings — oh, happy chance! — I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor did I see anything, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart. Or listen to Teresa of Avila’s account of her relationship with God, I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many rooms. If we reflect we shall see that the soul of the just person is but a paradise, in which, God tells us, He takes His delight. Let us imagine, as I said, that there are many rooms in this castle, of which some are above, some below, others at the side; in the centre, in the very midst of them all, is the principal chamber in which God and the soul hold their most secret intercourse. This imagery connects strongly with the imagery of the Song of Songs. We are each uniquely loved by God because within us is a place were each one of us can commune privately and intimately with God. As I will get to this is most certainly not about individualism or isolation this is about identity and relationship. We cannot become the Beloved Community if we do not live our lives as God’s beloved. This means like the mystics and like Mary that we make room for God in deepest places.

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If God does not occupy those places then they will continue to be the haunt for fear, insecurity, shame, greed, pride, control or anything else that keeps you from communion with God and neighbour. It should also not be overlooked that at as Jesus began his ministry it was his understanding of being God’s beloved that grounded his identity and work. After John baptized Jesus it says that the skies opened up and a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Understanding that each of us, as unique individuals, are loved by God is the beginning of becoming the Beloved Community but it is not the end. If we remain selffocused then what once looked like an intimate supportive environment becomes exclusive and rejecting of anyone who would need to join. And so we come to our second reading for this morning which is the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. The imagery from this story appears quite distinct from what we have been hearing so far but it is Abraham and Sarah with whom God forms a covenant to become a people who will be a blessing to the entire world. It is through Abraham that God shapes the Beloved Community. Abraham is 75 years old when God calls him out of his homeland and family. He is called with a promise of becoming a great nation. In the next 25 years Abraham experiences famine, war, prosperity and family turmoil but no child comes for him and Sarah. Then finally after it begins to feel like God’s promise is a joke they finally have a child and name him Isaac. But before we are even given a chance to get to know this person who we are told will become a great nation we read this,

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Some time later God tested Abraham. God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’ God appears merciless in exposing the pain of the request. God does not ask simply that Abraham bring Isaac. Instead God draws it out, take your son . . . your only son . . . whom you love . . . Isaac. We are given no insight into how Abraham feels. We are given only the details of the preparation and length of the journey. Three days he traveled with his son with God’s word ruminating in his heart and mind. As they ascend the mountain in silence Isaac finally asks his father where the lamb is. His mind distant in thought or prayer Abraham replies without thinking, “God will provide the lamb.” And they continue upward where Abraham builds the alter, binds his son and raises the knife. This image feels like a long way from the playful and intimate dialogue in the Song of Songs. But if we are to believe that the Beloved Community begins with God’s desire to love and be intimate with each individual then what does that look like with God and Abraham; with the founder of Old Testament Beloved Community. To understand this relationship we need to begin a few chapters back. In Genesis 15 God comes to Abraham in a vision and reminds him that he will be protected and receive a great reward. Abraham responds by reminding God that he is childless and so his line and inheritance will come to end without any of the promises fulfilled. Then it says that God took him outside the tent and showed him the stars of the sky and said that his children will be just as numerous. And Abraham believed God. Then God said, “I will give all this land as your possession.” And Abraham said, “How can I know this?” In response God gives Abraham a command that has baffled commentators.

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God tells Abraham to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. Abraham cuts each of the animals in half and lays each half of the carcass across from each other in a row. Abraham does this and then falls into a deep sleep where it says that a thick and fearful darkness came over. In his sleep God gives Abraham a vision of what will happen to his descendents. Then it says that a smoking pot and blazing torch appeared and passed between the animals that were cut in half. Walking through each of these steps we find that this scene is actually on of intimate communion between God and Abraham. First, the thick darkness that came over Abraham reminds us of the thick darkness at Mt. Sinai where God met with Moses and spoke with him face to face. The animals that God called Moses to sacrifice reflect the range of sacrifices which were at the heart of worship and therefore also the centre of life for the people of Israel. It is believed that the animals themselves represented the people of Israel who were called to be nation of priests. And the smoke and fire that passed through the animals also reminds us of how God led the people in the wilderness by a cloud during the day and fire at night. And so the smoke and fire were literally present in the very centre, in the middle of the descendents that Abraham will be blessed with. What was once so strange and seemed so distant from the familiar love language of Song of Songs actually gives us an intimate image of the relationship between God and Abraham. The passage ends by saying that “on that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.” This act sealed in an intimate covenant relationship between God and Abraham. This was a type of wedding night for God and Abraham. And so when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac at Moriah there was only one image of what sacrifice

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looked like. The image was of God’s presence intimately walking among his future descendents who in that very moment were represented in his only son Isaac. I don’t think Abraham fully understood how all of this would work out but what informed his decisions, what shaped his perspective was a deep knowledge of God’s love for him and God’s abiding presence in the very centre of his being. And so Abraham took each step believing that God would be present and could be trusted even though the future looked uncertain at best and tragic at worst. And so Abraham became the founder of God’s people and continued to receive such high praise in the New Testament because the people of God, the Beloved Community, is based on trust and intimacy. Abraham is essentially the Old Testament forerunner of Mary who accepts God’s will has God’s presence come over him and bears a child of promise from whom the world is blessed. Abraham displays what the intimate love found in Song of Songs looks like when engaged in a life caught up in the uncertainties of our life and thought. When each one of us understands that we are valuable, worthy, desirable, gifted and unique; when each one of us understands that we are loved in the deepest places then we will give love. Then we will love in a way that redeems because God’s love has redeemed us and because that love is for all people. And redemptive love, that is grace and forgiveness. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who made the phrase the Beloved Community popular. And it was his words and actions and grounded a people, a movement, a community in redemptive love. He wrote that , “Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all people, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse

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to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have love in your soul. . . . love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.” This is the way of forgiveness to receive love, to let it reside in our inmost places, let it grow and transform us; to become the beloved that you might be secure in the promise of God’s presence. From this place, from the place spoken of in the Song of Songs, from the true worship of God might we, like Abraham and Mary, give birth to a redemptive love that will be a blessing to all people. Amen.

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