Death By Exposure

Sunday sermon for October 30, 2011
Text: Song of Songs 3:1-5
Given at Slackwood Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ

I’ve only seen two soccer games in my life that really meant anything to me. I’m sorry if that offends you, I’m sorry if you’re a die-hard fan. I’ve tried – you’ll have to take my word for it – it hasn’t stuck. But there are two games I’ll never forget. Here’s the first one.

My friend John and I are wandering through Europe, pennies a day, living in rattrap motels and overnight trains. One morning we get off one of these trains in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, and realize that we’ve landed just as Greece is making a run at the Euro Cup. It’s not quite the World Cup, it’s on the off-years, but when you’re on the ground the passion is just as electric. The Greek team had well surpassed expectations, they’re in the semis, and we weren’t going to leave town until we could watch that game with the local cheering section.

The night of the game, we wander downtown to find a spot to watch. Sure enough, the city is projecting it onto a massive screen in the central square. A crowd of hundreds watches with bated breath, an agonizing 90 minutes until Greece scores the first and only goal with only moments to go. Game over, the crowd erupts. The place goes dizzy.

Americans that we are to the core, John and I decide to find a local watering hole where we could celebrate with communal authenticity. We turn our back on the square and head in the direction of our rattrap hotel. One block passes. Maybe two. And then we start to notice that we’re the minority. Out of the doorways, out of the alleyways, out of the tiny streets that form the latticework of the city, Thessaloniki is streaming past us, a zombie horde, thousands now, chanting, singing, erupting. The shameful truth becomes clear: we’ve left the party behind. We thought the authentic experience would be at some cozy neighborhood establishment. But we hadn’t given the streets of the city enough credit. We hadn’t given the public square its due. That’s where the action was.

“I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.”

That’s where the action is.

We may as well start with the elephant in the room: the Song of Songs is something of an odd duck in the Old Testament. At its very core, this love poetry: passionate, defiantly erotic; you have to admit, if you’ve been reading along, that Song of Songs is quite unlike anything else that we call scripture. One of these things is not like the other. As poetry can do, Song of Songs gives us a pastiche of images that can be hard to put into place. In equal measure we seem hear the perspective of both a young man and a young woman navigating the throes of passionate romance: in this morning’s reading, it is the young woman’s turn to remember. She lies in her bed, dreaming of her lover, calling his name to no avail. She makes a daring choice to wander into the streets of the city, seeking the one her soul loves.

This is daring, reckless stuff: she shouldn’t be out this late, out after dark, it’s a school night, the guards will spot her, the streets are dangerous, who knows what could befall her. It’s no place for a girl all by herself. You could almost hear her mother calling after her: where are you going? What are you doing? At leaset take your jacket! You’ll catch your death, you’ll freeze, death by exposure! But passion doesn’t pause for such things. This is the recklessness of forbidden love, this is where it happens, out on the streets, out where the city is alive, out where things happen, where danger happens, where love is sought and found, where the world changes, out where the action is.

Unless you have been living in some sort of cave you will be aware that the streets of our cities are very much where the action has been in these recent days. Since the middle of September, protesters have been camped in public squares of lower Manhattan, “occupying Wall Street,” taking their cues from the amazing revolutionary images that came from Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, springboarding what now seems to be something of a global movement. The visuals are staggering, what seemed to start with college students and a hefty dose of left-wing counterculture now claims mothers bringing their children, church groups staking their claim, union activists, armed service veterans, public intellectuals, civil servants. Occupy the Streets: don’t stay in the safety of your own home. Don’t stay in the shelter. Come to the streets, make yourself vulnerable, risk exposure. This is the public square. This is where the action is.

Of course, the woman in the poem is not content simply to stay in the streets. It hardly feels like encampment, there’s no rest here, there’s just constant motion. She passes the city guards, but her whole being is so dead-set on finding her lover that there’s not even a spare moment to be worried about being caught or detained. She just asks them: have you seen the one my soul loves? This is just bizarre, these are the cops: she should be ashamed, she should be frightened, but there’s no room for that. There’s too much motion. And when she finds her lover – and she does find her lover – even then, there’s no time to fall into each other’s arms. Without pause or apology, she takes him straight home, to the house of her mother, this strange piece of poetry, to the room of the one who conceived her.

This is the motion of the story: from the exposure of the streets to the comforts of home, from the dangers of the public square to the safety of the kitchen table. And I think there is something in this motion that is deeply seductive to us as people of faith: that when we encounter Song of Songs, we grab on to this exact idea: that we are lost in the city, that we are in the dangerous place beyond the sheepfold, that God brings us back to the safety of God’s table, to the room of the one who conceived us, who conceived of us. It’s a lovely image, and it’s certainly not a wrong image, and I’m not going to stand here and argue against the parable of the lost sheep. But I do think there’s something trickier in this text, something that won’t let us go quite so easily.

Two problems. The first problem goes like this: why does the woman cry for her lover before she ever goes into the city? Why does she expect to hear from him before she ever gets out of her bed? The only explanation I can figure is that he should already be there, but he’s gone. She wakes up and finds an indentation in the mattress where her lover should be. She cries out, and the resulting silence sends her careening through the night. So there’s longing here, but also worry about his trustworthiness. Why has he left? Where will he dare to be found? This is the Romeo & Juliet deleted scene, right after the balcony affair: illicit love gone wrong in the middle of the night: Romeo’s not supposed to be there in the first place, but now he’s gone, and it’s all the more alarming.

So, then, our second problem: when she finds him, she brings him not back to her own bed, but to the house of her mother. Not hours ago they were illicit lovers, but now she brings him home to meet the parents. In ancient Jerusalem even more so than today, there’s nothing safe or private about this meeting. It’s the most public declaration you can make, and probably mom is putting wedding invitations in the next day’s mail. Whatever poker game or cabaret he had found out on the streets – well, those days are over.

But now the movement of this text is something altogether different; the streets and the public squares are now hardly where the action is. Homecoming, crossing the threshold of the parent’s abode – this is where they becomes known. This is where their secrets are laid bare. This is where the action is. Now we’ve moved from Romeo & Juliet to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, when the simple act of bringing home the boyfriend can change everything.

It makes me wonder what Thanksgiving will look like at Occupy Wall Street. I don’t mean what it will look like for the stalwarts who hopefully will remain in Zuccoti Park in Lower Manhattan. Rather I wonder about the sons and daughters in those public squares who find their way to their mother’s house, to their father’s house. I wonder what the dinner conversation will be like. So, Aaron, tell us. You just live in the park? Why?? What’s the point? Where’s your message? I suspect the skepticism will run to every end of the spectrum. What can you possibly hope to accomplish? Why not just get a job and get on with your life? Talk about death from exposure. But then I imagine, I hope, I dream, I long to think that somewhere in-between bites of cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, that something like change happens. It’s not like that, mom. Let me tell you why we’re there. Let me tell you about my friends. Let me tell you our stories. Let me tell you our dreams. In my dreams, that’s where the action is.

Today is the day on the church calendar that we call Reformation Sunday, the commemoration of the event that gave rise to the Protestant church and to so many of our traditions and beliefs. In some ways it nothing less than a bizarre Sunday on which to preach from the Song of Songs, a book whose eroticism would make Luther himself blush. For this very reason our tradition tends to try and fix the Song of Songs: either it’s a sustained allegory, or it’s a footnote, and preachers were run out of Calvin’s Geneva for saying exactly what I have already said: that it is exactly what it seems: love poetry, pure and simple. Love poetry so raw that it uniquely captures something about what it is to be human. Love poetry so revered that Jerusalem included it in its holiest scripture. Love poetry so piercing that it surely is in the mind of the one who loved us all the way to the cross. Love poetry that says something fundamental to those of us who claim that cross-bound love.

Love poetry that says something like this: being known by God – by a God who, yes, seeks us throughout the night, in every corner of the public square – being known by God, intimately, honestly, even in our most private places – it’s dangerous. It lays us bare. It puts us on the line. Yes, we are brought into God’s household. Yes, God invites us to the table, with a place before us. And yet, face-to-face with our creator, this is precisely the place where we are most vulnerable, where we have no more room to hide, where we have no choice but to be fully known, where change finally happens, where the old life is gone, where everything has been made new, death by exposure, life in exposure. You who seek to know the Lord Jesus Christ, know this: he seeks to know you as well, to lay you bare, to find you out, to carry you to the house of his mother, where we are seen, and loved, for who we are.

I told you there were two soccer games that meant anything to me. Here’s the second one. I was working as a hospital chaplain during the summer of the last World Cup. Night games in South Africa meant midday games in America, and so I spent my days wandering past waiting room televisions tuned to an endless parade of international footballers. One quiet Sunday afternoon I wandered into a patient’s room, I wandered in to find a father and son watching the game, and I sat, and I joined them, in silence.

You spend a lot of time in chaplaincy trying to be somebody else, trying to learn what it is to be a chaplain, trying to become somebody who deserves to have that badge hanging around your neck. You spend a lot of time hiding, behind the nametag, behind the coat & tie, behind anything you can find to protect yourself from the pain and the fear that happens in those rooms. I spent most of my time wandering into conversations and not knowing what to say, that’s just how it works. But this day I wandered in – gathered in from the sprawling streets of the hospital, gathered from the cavernous public waiting rooms – I wandered in. I don’t remember the diagnosis, I don’t remember the story, but I just remember that I sat and joined them, and I was laid bare, my nametag on the table, my jacket on the chair, a bit of local authenticity. There’s no more to that story, there’s no rising action, there’s no dramatic climax. We sat around a television, while the nurses came and went, while the IV dripped, slowly, surely, while the monitor made its beeps and hums, we sat around a screen and watched a game, and God was there, and we were known. That’s where the action was. Amen.

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