Come, My Beloved!

Homily September 2, 2012 at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights

on the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) 2:8-13

Brennan Manning was born in Brooklyn in 1934.  He served in the Korean War and when he came home, he went to college.  His studies didn’t do much to inspire him, and he went looking for something else, something more; talking to friends, keeping his mind and heart open and focused on all around him.  In early 1956 he had an experience in prayer that changed his life from that moment forward.  He described it this way: “At that moment, the entire Christian life became for me an intimate, heartfelt relationship with Jesus.” For him that meant that life itself became all and only this intimate, heartfelt relationship with Jesus Christ, and with the Father of Christ, whom Manning always calls by the term Jesus used, “Abba,” Father.

Now this does not mean that the time from 1956 until today has been smooth sailing for Brennan.  He went to seminary.  He became a Catholic priest, a member of the Franciscan religious order.  He left the Franciscans and the priesthood.  He married.  He left the Catholic Church.  He eventually was divorced.  He began to write and to travel the world as a preacher.  He returned to Catholicism.  He became an uncontrollable alcoholic and lived on the streets of Florida, homeless, and at the doorway of death.  He moved into recovery and began to write and to preach again.  Today he is infirm, unable to walk by himself,  barely able to speak.  But when he speaks, some of the words he repeats most often are those we hear from the Song of Solomon in the first lesson from scripture today.  These words he hears as the words of Jesus Christ to his heart, and to yours, and to mine, amd to the hearts of every human person who lives and ever has lived or ever will live.  These words he understands as the words of undying, undeserved, unbreakable love of an incarnate God for us, incarnate spirits, often very messed up, desperate, broken and breaking – but always always always loved:

“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.”

In one of the many stages of his amazingly apparently unstable and yet profoundly focused life, Brennan was serving as the chaplain to the last hospital left in this nation to attend to men and women suffering and dying with Hansen’s disease, leprosy.  The hospital was in Louisiana.  One day as he arrived to make his rounds, the nurses asked him to hurry to one of the patients, a Mexican-American woman in her late 30’s named Yolanda, who was dying that day.  It’s worth hearing Brennan’s own description of what happened when he reached Yolanda’s bedside:

“… I went up to Yolanda’s room on the second floor and sat on the edge of the bed. Yolanda is a woman thirty-seven years old. Five years ago, before the leprosy began to ravage, she must have been one of the most stunningly beautiful creatures God ever made.  . . . But that was then.
Now her nose is pressed into her face. Her mouth is severely contorted. Both ears are distended. She has no fingers on either hand, just two little stumps.
Two years earlier, her husband divorced her because of the social stigma attached to leprosy, and he had forbidden their two sons, boys fourteen and sixteen, from ever visiting their mother.  . . . As a result, Yolanda was dying an abandoned, forsaken woman.
I… prayed with her. . . .  [T]he room was filled with a brilliant light. It had been raining when I came in; I didn’t even look up, but said, “Thanks, Abba, for the sunshine. I bet that’ll cheer her up.”
As I turned to look back at Yolanda – and if I live to be three hundred years old I’ll never be able to find the words to describe what I saw – her face was like a sunburst over the mountains, like one thousand sunbeams streaming out of her face literally so brilliant I had to shield my eyes.
I said, ‘Yolanda, you appear to be very happy.’
With her slight Mexican-American accent she said, ‘Oh, Father, I am so happy.’
I then asked her, ‘Will you tell me why you’re so happy?’
She said, ‘Yes, the Abba of Jesus just told me that He would take me home today.’
I vividly remember the hot tears that began rolling down my cheeks. After a lengthy pause, I asked just what the Abba of Jesus said.
Yolanda said:
‘Come now, My love. My lovely one, come.For you, the winter has passed, the snows are over and gone, the flowers appear in the land, the season of joyful songs has come.The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land.Come now, My love. My Yolanda, come.Let Me see your face. And let Me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful.Come now, My love, My lovely one, come.’
Six hours later her little leprous body was swept up into the furious love of her Abba. Later that same day, I learned from the staff that Yolanda was illiterate. She had never read the Bible, or any book for that matter, in her entire life. I surely had never repeated those words to her in any of my visits. I was, as they say, a man undone” (The Furious Longing of God, by Brennan Manning, David C. Cook Publishers, 2009).

I was reminded of Brennan Manning and the little I know of him – this man who calls himself a Ragamuffin of the Gospel, and invites others to be the same – not only by the obvious link to the Song of Solomon, but also by the part of the good news we hear today in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 7.  There Jesus is confronted by some very important religious authorities who had traveled into the hinterlands all the way from Jerusalem to challenge him.  They see Jesus’ disciples failing to keep some of the traditions that were dear to them – about cleanliness, about what is to be eaten and what not.  They challenge, and Jesus who, we have every indication, knew and respected the God-given Law of his people, responds with a challenge of his own.  God has asked certain things of us.  Sometimes we fail to keep those things and focus instead on our accepted interpretations and additions to what God has asked.  We get more caught up in the way we have come to do things than we do in the way God does things.  And when we do, in the very name of God we can move away from the experience of God and God’s own love.  

In his response, it looks to me like Jesus is asking us to stop, to back up a bit, and to consider whether the things we consider to be time-honored, and perhaps even vital in our relationship to God, really are all that.  Jesus seems to intimate that it is very easy for us, as human individuals and as human communities, to go off the mark, to go right off the road, and not even realize.  The things that are vital don’t have to do with our diet, or how well we keep ourselves clean, how spotless our speech is, or whether we hardly ever sin.  The things that are vital might not be those we most value either, even the time-honored traditions of Grace Church, of the Anglican Communion, or indeed of all Christianity. 

What is vital, as Brennan and others like him throughout Christian history have heard in this text, and throughout Scripture, is that we are loved.  You are loved.  I am loved.  We are loved by God.  Who won’t ever stop loving us.  Who will forever refuse to give up on us.  Ever.  Who loves us not because we are perfect, because we aren’t; but rather, who loves us in the face of our radical imperfection.  Who moves us toward perfection precisely by loving us.

The collect for this Sunday points us gently and beautifully in this same direction.  Hidden in the middle are two phrases that need, as they are, to be heard together as they complement and unveil one another.  We asked the Lord: “increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness.”  

True Religion?  What does this phrase mean in our time, besides being a line of popular jeans?   The word “religion” has its roots in the Latin, re-ligare that is, to tie, to bind, to fasten.  The sense is that some things that have been separate are being brought together to form a union, a whole again. That is, we humans are being bound together and fastened to the Center of all that is, what we call God, by one bond: love.
Only if we have ‘true religion’ in this sense will we ever be open to receive the nourishment of ‘all goodness’ from the hand of God.  

What God wants from us, as Jesus says clearly today, is what those closest to us in life want from us.  God wants our hearts. The deepest center of our inner affections, focused Godward, so that there is opened up a wide and open highway between us and God, along which God can send us better gifts than we ever would have thought to ask. 

Brennan Manning is almost silent these days. He is, peacefully and with full confidence, at the end of his earthly living.  But listen: every generation needs men and women who look and see through all the layers of interpretation and tradition and history and teaching and confusion and discussion as argument and human striving and push their way through it all to a quiet clearing where they find themselves eye to eye with Love, with God directly.  Every era needs these people. Some of them may be here now in this room. 
“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.”



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