Aug 04

You Give Them Something to Eat

            In the middle of the lush fields and summer green of Forest Hill, the desert can seem a long way off. The closest desert, as far as I can tell, is somewhere out west, Texas, maybe, or New Mexico or Colorado. Here it’s easy to forget what deserts are like—or to pretend that they don’t exist.

            The truth is, deserts are a lot closer than we care to think. In fact, I imagine just about all of us have been in some kind of a desert at some point: the desert of loneliness, the desert of despair, the desert of depression, the desert of sin. One of the scariest deserts to face is the food desert. Recently, the term “food desert” has been used to name neighborhoods and towns that have no easy access to food, or at least to good food, because grocery stores and other food providers won’t set up shop. Often these food deserts are in urban areas like Baltimore or Philadelphia. As close as these cities and their food deserts are, they still seem a million miles from Forest Hill, a small town of a few thousand people that has at least three large, well-stocked grocery stores, not to mention produce stands and even farms. But food deserts aren’t just found in the cities. Every time a person goes hungry, she finds herself in a food desert. Every time someone must choose between paying the electric bill and buying groceries, he finds himself in a food desert. Every time children arrive at school without having breakfast, they and their families find themselves in a food desert. Friends, we are surrounded by the desert.

            In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus enters his own desert—well, wilderness, really, not, strictly speaking, a desert. Jesus finds himself in the desert for the same reason Moses enters the desert a thousand years earlier—he’s fleeing from a Pharaoh. In Moses’ day, it was an actual Pharaoh, an iron-fisted ruler who cruelly sought to destroy the Israelites. We’ll be hearing more about this Pharaoh in just a few more weeks. In Jesus’ day, the “Pharaoh” is King Herod, not an Egyptian but a puppet of the Roman Empire. In the passage just before our gospel reading this morning, Pharaoh, I mean King Herod, has executed John the Baptist. Jesus hears about John’s death and heads for the hills near the Sea of Galilee.

            Like Moses, however, Jesus does not enter the desert alone. Oh, he means to. He’s escaping, seeking some time to himself to recover from the news of the Baptist’s death. But Israel follows Jesus into the wilderness as surely as they followed Moses across the Red Sea, disrupting Jesus’ plans for some needed respite.

            Jesus, of course, does not send them away: he saw them “and he had compassion for them,” Matthew tells us. Jesus doesn’t accept their presence reluctantly; he feels for them. He loves them. He heals them. And then he feeds them.

            This last part is the part most of us probably know, the feeding of the 5000. The disciples come to Jesus near the end of the day and say, “Jesus, it’s getting late. Send them away; they need food. The roads aren’t safe at night.” The disciples realize that they and the crowds are in the middle of a food desert.

            Jesus says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” You can imagine how the disciples would have panicked—where could twelve men find food for 10, 15, maybe even 20,000 people? After all, they are in the middle of a food desert. There’s nothing here. We have nothing to offer them; only these five loaves of bread and two fish.

            “It’s enough,” Jesus says.

            “Enough? For 20,000 people?! It’s not even enough for us twelve!”

            “Bring them here to me.”

Last spring, when I learned that I would be appointed to Centre, two things got me excited about serving here. First, the District Superintendent told me that you have weekly communion. I love that. I became a pastor so that I could preside at the Eucharist. Second, the District Superintendent told me you had a food pantry. Feeding hungry people is so important to the church’s witness and mission in the world. I’ve been to the food pantry twice already, and I am so proud of how our church dedicates a space in our community building to share food with people from our community who are lost in food deserts. And it’s not just our own pantry. We have members who serve those without homes at local shelters and who work with Mason-Dixon Community Services. I’m excited about the ways we serve our community.

Maybe you don’t see a connection between celebrating communion every week and serving our hungry neighbors every week, but I do. And so does Jesus. Look at what happens when the disciples give him the five loaves and two fish: Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples.” Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Jesus does in the Upper Room. Matthew 26:26 reads, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’”

It’s also the same thing that happens every Sunday here at Centre: we offer to our Lord bread and the cup, we give thanks, and we break the bread, trusting by faith that it somehow is Christ’s body, broken for us. The bread for the 5,000 and the bread for Holy Communion are united in Christ’s acts of thanksgiving and sacrifice.

The past few weeks we listened to parables from Jesus about life in the garden. We heard about weeds and wheat, fields and seeds, treasure and pearls. All of it leads up to the feeding of the 5000. Matthew places this story just after these parables. It’s as if he—and, of course, the Holy Spirit—was trying to tell us, “The bounty of God’s garden is for the good of God’s people. God’s bounty is for the physical and spiritual needs of his people. Feed on Christ in thanksgiving at his Supper; then, go and feed his people, your neighbors. Offer to Christ what you have received from God, and he will bless it and return it to you, for the sake of others.”

            Two weeks ago, at the pantry, our church served three families who found themselves in food deserts. Last week we waited two hours, and nobody came by. If our pantry only reached one family for the entire year, it would still be worthwhile.

And yet I am haunted by Jesus’ words: “You give them something to eat.” Is God calling us to do even more with our pantry? Is Jesus heading out into nearby deserts ahead of us? Do we feel compelled to follow him? In our weekly communion service, where all who come are fed, all receive the same thing, and all are given enough of what they need, is God giving us a glimpse of his vision for this vital ministry?

Jesus had compassion for the crowd. “He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking up the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” So may it be with us. Amen.

 
Jul 29

All In

            This week is the last of our parables from the garden, from the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the sower; last week it was the parable of the weeds among the wheat. This week we have five short parables, about a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, and catching fish. All of these parables, from today and from the past two weeks, lead up to next Sunday’s gospel reading, which is not a parable but one of Jesus’ great miracles. Stay tuned.

            At first glance, the five parables from this morning’s reading don’t have much to do with each other. And, in fact, we could put them into three different groups. First are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. Both of these parables remind us that the kingdom of God comes to us in unexpected ways and has its beginnings in what is small and even ugly. Mustard was a weed in ancient Israel, not a desirable plant, and yeast—well, this is the only time in Matthew’s gospel when yeast is a good thing. Normally yeast was ugly filth. The kingdom of God is like this: nobody could think that Jesus’ mangled, ugly, undesirable, crucified body could be God’s means of salvation and humanity’s greatest hope—but it was and it is.

            The second group of parables are the parable of the treasure in the field and the parable of the pearl. Here, the kingdom is something exciting and valuable—worth every penny.

            Finally, the third group is a group of one, the parable of the fish and the net. This is a lot like last week’s parable of the weeds among the wheat. The kingdom casts a wide net, but in God’s time judgment will not be reserved.

            What these five parables have in common is this: God is all in. I’m not a gambling man, and I hope you aren’t either, but you know what I’m talking about. Each of these parables tell us that God is not holding back some chips for a better hand. God doesn’t have anything in reserve; he doesn’t hold back. In the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, God is all in. In the mustard seed that becomes a great tree, even nesting birds, God is all in. In the yeast that mixes through three measures of flour—fifty pounds, enough to feed at least a hundred people—God is all in. In the person who finds treasure in a field and sells everything—everything!—for it, God is all in. In the merchant who gives up all his possessions for a single pearl, God is all in. In the fishermen who cast nets until they are completely full, and not just until they have a decent catch, God is all in. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, humbling himself in the form of a slave, suffering death on a cross, and being raised from the dead on the third day—God is all in.

            God does not just look at us, at fallen humanity in our sin, and say, “Well, maybe I’ll do something about that some day.” God does not see our fears and our difficulties and think, “I guess I could spare a moment for that.” God is all in. God responds by offering everything that God has to us, by offering himself to us in Jesus Christ. God does not hold in reserve even his Son, even the Holy Spirit. For us and for our salvation, God is all in.

            That’s what Paul is up to in this morning’s reading from Romans. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray us we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Those sighs too deep for words are the cries of Jesus Christ from the cross, words so terrifying and so agonizing that they can mean only one thing: in Jesus Christ, God is all in, knowing even the worst moments of our despair and longing for him. Paul says that the Spirit of God, the Spirit Christ gives up at the cross, the Spirit Christ sends upon his disciples and upon us, the Holy Spirit is also at work in us and intercedes for us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all in.

            Paul gets so excited about God being all in for us that he uses a word that sends chills down most Methodists’ spines: predestination. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

            In the past, especially in certain circles after the Reformation, predestination was talked about as a kind of determinism: God chooses some to be saved, some to be damned, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, wanted nothing to do with that view, and we Methodists have inherited his distaste for predestination. But predestination is not about God choosing some and ignoring or damning the rest; it’s not about God overriding human will. God is not another creature. God is not just a really big, powerful version of a human being, a kind of superman. God is God—outside of creation, above creation. So there is no competition between human beings and God. It’s not a zero-sum game of our will against God’s.

            Listen again to the context: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Love is only genuine when it is unforced, uncoerced. God does not create mechanical clocks to respond as he wants. He makes creatures who are able to love him. Predestination is another way of saying: God is all in. It is the blessed assurance all of us seek. God promises that his care for those who love him is so strong, so certain, and so overwhelming that it sits in God’s very heart. God’s will is for the good of all those who love God.

            Now here’s the flip side. The good for which God is working, the goal of our following Jesus, is, Paul says, “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In other words, if we want to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to respond to God with our own, “All in.” “All in”—we’re willing to give up everything we have to follow you, Jesus. “All in”—we will go wherever you lead us, Jesus. “All in”—Jesus, our lives are in your hands.

            From our side, our “All in” is a huge risk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “the cost of discipleship.” All of us, at some points, have been reluctant to give everything over to God. But each time we respond with our own “all in,” we are reminded that God in Christ was “all in” long before we were born.

            In my first month of sermons at Centre I have emphasized that our faith, our Scripture, our worship, and our love is about God—and not about us. If we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to remember that everything is about God. The careful, the attentive among you, I hope, have been harboring a question: What about us? Is there nothing for us to do?

            God is calling Centre United Methodist Church to a new day of ministry, a new day of discipleship. The good news is that God is already “all in” on this—he has called us, and he will work all things for the good for those who love him, for those—for us—whom he has called. But if we are to be conformed to image of his Son, we need to be “all in,” too. And sometimes, it’s going to be scary. Things will change. We will need to give up old ways of doing things that have more to do with our past than our calling. We will have to open ourselves to the community around us, to the school behind us, to the poor and homeless in our neighborhoods, and to persons from backgrounds and lifestyles that are unfamiliar and even strange to us. We will need to relinquish habits and patterns of thought and speech that alienate us from generations that did not grow up in the church and do not know Jesus Christ. In other words, we will be asked to sell everything we have for the one pearl of great value, for the treasure in the field. And others will look at us with scorn, scoffing at our tiny size or our commitment to an ugly Savior.

God’s “all in” led Jesus, led the Trinity, to the cross. Roman Catholic crosses are crucifixes; they are crosses with Jesus still on them. Protestant crosses are bare. The great theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that Protestant crosses are bare because we like to skip over the crucifixion and jump right to the resurrection. I think Stanley’s right. But our empty Protestant crosses are also a reminder and an invitation: if we follow Jesus, the empty space on our cross might one day be filled with our own bodies. Are we all in?

Some of us here today—perhaps even some we might suspect the least—some of us here today might not be all in. Maybe most of us aren’t. In that case, God still has a plan for us and will still use us while we’re here. Nothing much will change, and we will find ourselves continuing to wonder why other churches are flourishing and we are not.

But if we’re all in, if we’re willing “to be conformed to the image of God’s Son,” we will find again and again that God was already and always “all in” for us. Bountiful harvests, food for all, and the joy of serving and loving the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all these things and many more await us. All in?

           
Jul 21

God of the Seeds

            This week we continue with parables from Jesus of the garden, of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. Last week we heard the parable of the sower and were reminded of God’s extravagant love for the world. Our love has limits and boundaries; God’s has none. God in Christ is the one who sows; we are not. This is what we heard last week.

            Now, with this week’s parable, we run into a problem: weeds. When you have a farmer as careless as the sower from last week’s parable, a farmer who doesn’t plow but just throws his seeds to the wind, you’re bound to get weeds. And, sure enough, weeds do show up in the garden this week. Lots of weeds. Big weeds. Big problem.

            Everybody’s upset about the weeds. “What?” say the workers to the farmer. “You planted good seeds; how’d these weeds get in here? Let’s pull them up now, right away, before they have a chance to grow.” These workers, they’re hopping mad, ready to go out to the fields and undo the damage of the weeds.

            I imagine the wheat plants weren’t too thrilled about the weeds, either. Just think about it: they go to bed one night in a field of perfectly good seeds and the next morning—weeds. There goes the neighborhood. Can somebody please do something about these weeds?!

            Yes, everybody’s upset about the weeds, and so they should be. Weeds hurt the good crops, block sunlight, steal nutrients. They’re more than a nuisance; they’re a threat, a real danger to the harvest. Everybody’s upset about the weeds.

            Everybody, that is, except the farmer. “Weeds?” he says. “Eh—somebody must have snuck in one night and sown fields with weeds.” Well, shouldn’t we pull them up? “Pull them up? What would you want to do that for? There’s no hurry; we’ll take care of them at the harvest.”

            Now, I know some of you here this morning are farmers and gardeners. I’m not much of a gardener, and I’m certainly no farmer, but I do know enough to say this: I hope and pray that none of you farms like this. This guy is clueless. Weeds choke out good plants. The longer you wait, the more problems they cause. Things are spinning out of control. What is wrong with this farmer?

            And then Jesus tells us that the farmer is the Son of God.

            What can it possibly mean that the Son of God is—this farmer? I’m sure there are lots of conclusions we might draw from the association, but this morning I want to highlight four implications.

            First, the farmer is in control. This field is his. It does not belong to his servants, and his enemy has no control over it. The farmer refuses to panic when his enemy does plant bad seeds in his fields. Things happen according to his schedule and not in a half-thought rapid response to an unforeseen emergency. So it is with Jesus, the Son of God. So often we talk about human sin, especially the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, as if God was just reacting to situations out of his control, as if God looked at Adam and Eve after they had taken the fruit and said to them, “Well, shoot, I never saw that coming.” As if ever since then God has been in crisis management mode, putting out fires and hopping from one emergency to the next. No. God is the creator, the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. God is not rattled by human sin nor by the conniving work of the devil. All things are in God’s hands. God’s work, his salvation and his judgment, happens on God’s schedule and not according to the creature’s clock. Even the angels cannot force God’s hand. Even Satan cannot shake God.

            Second, the farmer only plants good seeds. As unlikely as it might seem for a farmer who, by human standards, farms so poorly, the farmer’s seed bag is unmixed. It is all good. And the seed that the farmer plants will bear the fruit, the grain, that the farmer intends. God does not make evil. Evil is not part of God’s creation. God never retracts or regrets calling creation good in Genesis 1. The farmer tells the workers to wait until harvest before pulling up the weeds. Why? Because in the farmer’s mind, a weed is not known by its appearance but by its fruit. If it looks like a weed in July, as far as the farmer is concerned, it might still give grain in September. God knows the goodness of his creation by its bounty. Trees that are good produce good fruit. On the third day of creation, God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” On the fifth day God commanded the birds of the air and the creatures of the sea, “Be fruitful and multiply.” On the sixth day, God repeated the command to humankind: “Be fruitful and multiply.” God knows the goodness of his creation by its bounty.

            Third, the farmer is patient, not indifferent, about the plight of his fields. The farmer bides his time, waiting for the moment that heknows is the best time. When that time comes, however, the farmer acts decisively. The weeds that do spring up are harvested—to be destroyed. God will not tolerate injustice and sin forever. The mechanisms that this world has developed to oppress people, to grind them under the heel of power, money, and social standing, will be dealt with, on God’s time, in God’s own way. Christ’s warning in this parable is to the powerful, the elite, the smug: I will know you by your fruit. The powers and principalities of this world will be brought to justice. Those who denigrate the poor by calling them lazy or ungrateful for their meager lot in life will be brought to justice. Those who perpetuate racism through unquestioned assumptions and harmful stereotypes will be held to account. Those who incite hatred of “those people”—whoever they may be—God will deal with.

            Fourth, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, should be compared to the farmer. Literally, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven is made like a man planting good seed in his field.” In this parable, for the sake of the point Jesus is making here, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is not the field—it is the farmer himself. The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is about God—what God is doing in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is about God who has the control, goodness, and patience to deal with evil in the world, the God who should not be made to follow our demands or our schedules for dealing with the problems around us.

            So often I hear Christians talk—and I don’t even know if they hear themselves when they do it—I hear us Christians talk as if our reason for being Christians was to get into heaven or to get out of hell. Now, I have no desire to spend even a moment, let alone an eternity, in hell—although I’ve been some places here on earth that are pretty close—but when we make Christianity about heaven and hell, we leave out the most important part: God.

            Jesus tells us, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” In the parable of weeds among the wheat, we discover that to seek the kingdom of God is to seek the farmer, the Son of God, to seek Jesus himself. And the good news to us this morning is that when we seek Jesus, we find God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who only plants good seeds. Amen.
Jul 14

The Sower

Last week we heard from the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, about the love God has for us. God calls us into a garden that he has prepared for us, a garden of fruits and flowers, a garden of life and intimacy with him: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away! We might think of the kingdom of God as that garden, the place where God calls us and meets us. The kingdom of God is not just about heaven, of course. The kingdom of God is here, now, already breaking in, already changing lives, already setting the universe on the course of redemption and resurrection. God’s salvation and love is for all that God has created.

            This week, and for the next few weeks, we listen to parables from Jesus about life in the garden. And these parables, just like the Song of Solomon, can only be understood if we accept one fundamental truth about the Bible: the Bible is about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible is not about me; the Bible is not about you. The Bible is about God—the Lord.

            Now, fortunately for us, for you and me, the God the Bible is about—the only God, the one True God—is also the God who invites us to get involved with what he is doing, the God who loves us, who cares for us, and who invites us to participate in his life. The Bible is about the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Miriam, Ruth, Mary, and Jesus. Saying the Bible is about God frees us from making the Bible about us. Saying the Bible is about God frees us to find our place in God’s story, instead of us trying to squeeze God into the little room left in our crowded stories.

            So let me say it again: the Bible is about God. And if the Bible is about God, then the sower in this morning’s parable is… Jesus. Yes! The Sunday School answer is once again the right answer. Jesus is the sower. And the parable of the sower is about Jesus, about God.

            Listen carefully. I don’t care how many times you’ve tried to share the gospel with someone. I don’t care how frustrated you are that some people listen to you and others ignore you. I don’t care about your passion for evangelism. You are not the sower.

            Listen again. I don’t care how many sermons I’ve preached. I don’t care how congregations have responded. I don’t care how hard it is to figure out why some people respond to my preaching and others don’t. I am not the sower.

            Jesus is the sower in this morning’s parable. Jesus, sent by the Father, went out to the field—the garden, the kingdom of God—to sow seed. Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly—only to wither away, since they had no root. Other seeds fell among thorns, which choked them out. And some seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.

            The seed, Jesus explains, is the word of the kingdom. What is that? It is the gospel, the good news, that Christ proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, in the invitation to his disciples, in the call to Israel and all the world to follow him. Some people hear the word and respond faithfully, bearing fruit in generous yields. What fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Many others, however, do not yield fruit. They get snared by the traps of the devil, trapped by fears of persecution and danger, or caught up in worldly desires—especially the desire for money. See Judas.

            Why does this person respond in faith and that person get caught up in distracting desires? Jesus’ parable doesn’t even try to tell us. There is no answer. There can be no answer. To pretend there is an answer is to pretend that there are good reasons—or any reasons at all—not to follow Jesus, that there are good reasons—or any reasons at all—not to listen to God. There are none. So if you’ve been telling yourself reasons and excuses not to follow Jesus, give them up. They’re no good, they don’t fly, and you’re better off without them. And if you claim you’ve heard the Word of God and been changed by it, show us your fruit. Where is your joy, your peace, your patience, your gentleness, your love?

            This parable, though, is not about you, and it’s not about me. Like everything in the Bible, it’s about God. And this is what the parable of the sower tells us about God: God’s love, for you, for me, for everything and everyone God created, is extravagant beyond all measures.

            So often, when we love, even when we say we love as much as we can, we hold something back. We say we love our friends and family, but we guard ourselves against getting hurt. We claim to love our neighbor, but we make sure we’re taken care of first. We say we love our enemy, as Christ commanded us, but we arm ourselves with weapons and words to strike deadly blows. We claim we love our Lord with all our heart, our mind, and our strength, but we hold back a little just in case. Our love has limits. By the grace of God, we seek to love beyond our limits, but we are still moving on toward perfection.

            Not so for God. God, in Jesus Christ, is the sower who spreads seeds on all the land. He throws his seeds carelessly to the wind, knowing that some of it will fall on fertile soil and some of it will fall on barren ground. Christ does not say, “I will only share the good news of God’s kingdom with the best, the most important, or the ones I know will respond well.” Christ walks out into his garden and starts scattering seed. Christ does not hold back the best seed for the best parts of the garden; he offers the same to everyone—just as he offers the same to everyone at the table.

            This is how great God’s love in Christ is: that he is willing even to let some, perhaps most, of the seeds go to waste for the sake of the bountiful harvest that comes from the seeds that do land in good earth. Our love has limits; God’s has none. God’s love is extravagant, wasteful, unrestrained, and beyond all human reason.

            Friends, this is the good news for us this morning. God loves us so much that the words of the kingdom of God are given even to such undeserving souls as you and me. The parable of the sower invites our response. Not the one too-often declared, that we should try to be good soil, as if we could earn our way into hearing God’s word. No. The true response to the parable of the sower is for us to pray that the Holy Spirit would so fill us that we might produce fruit worthy of the gospel. The true response is to celebrate the gracious love of God that spills over all boundaries and all borders. The rest is up to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Jul 14

The Voice of Love

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, 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.

            For every one of us gathered here this morning, love has a voice. The voice of love is more than a sound. It is not just something we hear and recognize. Love’s voice speaks to our hearts as much as to our ears. The voice of love is the voice of intimacy and of gentleness, the voice of caresses and of tears, the voice of caring and of concern. It is the voice we know more than any other in the whole world. For Isaac, in our reading from Genesis this morning, the voice of love was Rebekah’s voice, the voice of the woman Isaac loved more than any other, the woman who comforted him after his mother’s death. For some of us here this morning, love’s voice is the voice of the one seated next to us right now, or maybe the voice of one just across the room. For others of us, love’s voice has gone quiet; it is a voice not heard for far too long. Still, all of us, I think, know love’s voice. We know the voice of the one we love, of the friend, or the parent, or the spouse—of the one we call beloved. For every one of us gathered here this morning, love has a voice.

            The beautiful thing about love’s voice is that it is so powerful, so—deep, that the moment we hear it is like the very first moment of spring. Its sound cracks through winter’s ice, brings joy to what was dark and bleak, erupts in delight, and flowers forth in full color—especially when we have been separated from the voice of our beloved. Separation, just like the seasons, is, at least in this world, a part of the natural rhythms of love and of life. We cannot be present with our beloved at all times and in all places. But separation—whether of distance, of time, of a failed relationship, or of the loss of our beloved to age or illness—separation is also a form of death. And in those times of separation, if we could but hear love’s voice again, it would be a foretaste of the resurrection.

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 turtledove is heard in our land.”

            For Israel, the voice of the beloved is the voice of the Lord. The Lord takes Israel to be his bride; he woos her with the seductive poetry of the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon, the Song—the only Song. From the earliest days of creation, the Lord entices Israel into the garden he has prepared for her: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. Adam, Israel’s first forefather (and ours), does arise, but only to fall away. He sets up a pattern that Israel follows over and over—one that I’m sure each of us also knows all too well. Adam turns from the flowers and singing and turtledoves and fig trees of the Lord’s garden to the thistles and thorns and weeds of a garden of his own making. The Lord calls again—arise my love, my fair one!—to Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and his sons, then to Moses and Israel in bondage. At last Israel does arise and follows the Lord—only to turn from him in the wilderness on the threshold of the Promised Land.

            Again and again, through prophets and psalms, through poetry and kings, the Lord calls. All too often, Israel ignores the voice of her beloved. She finds other gods—other so-called gods—for quick-fix pleasures and short-term flings. But no love can satisfy like the love of God, and when Israel does heed the voice of her loving Lord, she discovers his generosity, forgiveness, and mercy.

“The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.”

            More often than not, Israel’s story is a story of failing to hear the voice of her beloved. Is there no one faithful to be found in Israel? In the beginning of Luke’s gospel we find one who is and has been faithful, who represents Israel in her life before God: Mary, the mother of Jesus. Hearing the good news of God’s love—God’s favor—for her from the angel Gabriel, Mary does not say, “I am too old,” the way Sarah did, or “Send someone else,” the way Moses did. She is faithful to God’s love, and she responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” By the power of the Holy Spirit, her faithfulness, her love of God’s love for her, bears fruit worthy of God’s love. In Mary, Israel is no barren tree condemned to wither and die. Israel is the fig tree that puts forth its figs, the vine that blossoms in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

            Jesus enables and completes the faithfulness of Mary and of Israel by responding to God’s love fully in ways no other person could do. Jesus is God’s beloved and God’s son, fully human and fully divine. Jesus is the one who first hears at his baptism, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Listen to him! The voice of Jesus is the voice of Love! Jesus calls out, “Come and follow me.” He speaks, and his sheep hear and know his voice. Jesus calls together the disciples, he gathers the church together with his voice of love. We hear his voice in our gospel reading this morning: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Arise, my love, and come away, for now the winter is past.

            The church is Christ’s bride, his beloved. By loving the church, Christ makes the church lovely. If we burn with desire and love for our Lord—the very desire and love given to us by Christ in the Holy Spirit—we will be adorned with the most beautiful of wedding garments for a feast like none other. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, for now the winter is past.

My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.

            This verse, which comes just a few verses after what we already read this morning, is crucial.

            God in Christ loves the church, and he loves each of her members, from the least to the greatest. His love is for all of us, for those in our midst and for the saints who have come before us, for those we ourselves love and for those we cannot stand, for those who think they know the gospel and for those we think need it.

            At the waters of baptism, through Christ, God spoke to each of us. In Christ, at the waters, God declared, you are my daughter; you are my son. In you I am well pleased. The Lord offered his voice as the voice of our lover. He invited us to speak words of love in return: My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. What did you say?

            Each Sunday, each time we celebrate Holy Communion, the Lord says to us again, Arise my love, my fair one, and come away. What will you say? Will you say to him, My beloved is mine and I am his? Or will you keep silent?

            For every one of us gathered here this morning, love has a voice. The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, 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 turtledove 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.

            My beloved is mine, and I am his. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!