It’s been a bit grim in the news this week, has it not. Early in the week, someone in Austria found a truck full of migrants—people trying to escape war and poverty in their homelands to make a living and survive in Europe. Seventy of them. All dead. Then two boats capsized off the coast of Libya, full of migrant folk as well. Two hundred people drowned.
The issue of migrants in Europe is complicated and simple at the same time. It’s complicated because Europe does not have the same tradition of immigration and diversity as the United States. We are African American, European American, Hispanic American, Asian American, Native American. We certainly are not perfect in how we handle these things, but Europe doesn’t even have our traditions.
On top of that, whenever you have a strong influx of desperate people into a country, the people in that country are going to experience hardship. Some of them are going to say, “Wait, I did not do anything to cause these people to be desperate. Why should I pay? I personally didn’t do anything to hurt any of them. Why should I suffer hardship?”
It’s complicated. It’s also simple, because migrants are human beings. Europeans are human beings.
A bit of a grim week. On Wednesday morning, a man shot a TV reporter and her cameraman as they did an interview outside Roanoke, Virginia. The man was angry about how he felt he had been treated at the station. He also felt angry over the shootings at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina.
Racially connected violence is both complicated and simple. It’s complicated because we do have bad history. And still, many people who really wish to hone and develop their gifts so that they can bless the world and the nation, face huge obstacles because of race and class. Also, there is resentment and fear and mistrust and cynicism and apathy and despair.
It’s complicated. It’s also simple, because we are all human beings. African American human beings, European American human beings, Hispanic American human beings, Asian American human beings, Native American human beings.
I could lift up for your consideration a number of Bible passages which help us grapple with these deeply painful issues, like the death of migrants or the reality of racially connected violence. Today, I will lift up one, from our Old Testament lesson for today:
10My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
Song of Solomon is a fascinating book of Scripture. It almost didn’t make it into the Bible. When the ancient rabbis were figuring out what should be in the Hebrew Scriptures, they knew they agreed on some books for sure. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: no problem. Prophets were in. Likewise, the Psalms. Song of Solomon, not so sure.
Some people said that Song of Solomon was little more than a drinking song. But a very widely respected rabbi, who is still studied and followed in the Jewish community today, Rabbi Akiba, said, “No, no, you have to keep the Song of Solomon. It is the Holy of Holies!”
Rabbi Akiba probably understood Song of Solomon as an allegory. They thought it was a love song between God and Israel. Early Christian theologians also interpreted it to represent the love between Christ and the church.
Most scholars nowadays think that the original writers of these love poems probably were not referring to God and Israel or Christ and the church. Song of Solomon is about physical, erotic, romantic love.
It is the only book of the Bible in which a woman does most of the talking. The man also speaks a good bit, and then a few lines are given to the man’s friends and to the women of Jerusalem.
This woman is not at all shy, not inhibited in the least about how excited she is over the fact that this guy has fallen in love with her. She calls him a stag, a figure of strength and energy. She says he is like a gazelle. Have you ever watched a gazelle run across the grassland, not running from something, afraid, but leaping for the sheer fun of it? Have you seen how the muscles ripple beneath the smooth, brown fur, and how his neck arches around as he turns to look at you?
This book is sensual. If you read it in Hebrew, which I have done only in the littlest bit, it is positively blue.
Song of Solomon is one of two books in the Bible that don’t mention God. The other one is Esther. Doesn’t mention God out loud at all. This is a good thing, because nine times out of ten, when God speaks to us, God speaks in voices and tones that we do not hear with our minds, we don’t even know God is talking to us. But we sense it in our souls.
For example, the smoothness of her skin; that particular curve of her shoulder. Those are manifestations of God’s beauty. The twinkle in his eye, the swing of his hips; oh yes, these are moments of God’s glory.
We need this. Have you noticed in the last few weeks, the golden tinge in the late summer light, echoing off of the trees and grass? Have you tasted the barest whiff of a tang of autumn in the cool air that opens our lungs? These are manifestations of God’s beauty.
We need this because they remind us that God’s life, God’s beauty is deeper than any tragedy, any violence. They remind us of Christ’s resurrection.
And if we don’t have a vision of this beauty, this resurrection, then we are too easily seduced. When we are confronted with awful tragedy like the deaths of all these migrants, our fear, which is appropriate—fear is a gift of God to motivate us to prevent awful tragedies from happening—our fear is too easily seduced into cowardice. So instead of acting to prevent tragedy, we cower in our own little homes, our own little worlds, and pretend that tragedy doesn’t happen.
Now, we can’t take on all the tragedy of the world. But God’s beauty, the promise of God’s victory gives us strength to take on some.
Same thing with racially connected violence. Without a sense that God’s life wins, our anger, which is appropriate—anger is a gift of God to motivate us to prevent evil acts like racially connected violence—our anger is too easily seduced. We think the violence is the biggest thing in the universe, so our anger turns to hate.
We need these visions of God’s beauty. In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says that it is not the things that come at us from the outside, whether they be food or news or whatever, but rather the things from within, the heart that make them good or evil. It is how we meet the world, not the world itself what makes us clean or defiled, good or bad.
So watch for the good in this world, this day. They are echoes of God’s goodness coming. Next time you eat a piece of chocolate, don’t take a big bite. Take a little bite. Turn off the TV. Close your eyes. Let that sweet, bitter richness swirl around your mouth. Let the dark, creamy aroma rise around your throat and tongue. This is a reminder that God wins.
Next time you hear an exquisite piece of music, put down the dishes. Pull over the car. Close your eyes. Let the tones dance back and forth amidst the nerve endings in your brain. Let the angels dance among them. That’s where they dance. That’s where they sing that whispering we all keep hearing, that breaks our hearts with hope: Love wins.
These reminders, these visions of God’s beauty make us able to deal with human agony with compassion and hope.
So, remember the smoothness of her skin, and the curve of her shoulder. That’s a window on the divine. Keep in mind the twinkle in his eye, and the swing, don’t be forgetting the swing of his hips.