Sermon: Counting our blessings

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 29th of August, 2021

Song of Songs 2:8-13

Last week’s Reflection talked about the long history of lament in Judaism and Christianity, and said that if our response to the sixth lockdown was anger and despair then the heritage of our faith tells us that kicking and screaming and blaming God for God’s absence is a faithful response. That is still true. But I feel that as your minister I am compelled to balance a Reflection about anger and sadness with one about hope and joy. If you are not in a place where being encouraged to ‘count your blessings’ is helpful, then please ignore what I am saying today and return to last week’s Reflection. The Book of Lamentations moves from lament to praise and back to lament again, and we will all be in different places in that cycle.

Because Christianity was born in the northern hemisphere the liturgical year does not fit with Australia’s seasons. We celebrate new life at Easter in the autumn, and the coming of the Light in the darkness at midsummer rather than midwinter. But this week it is we who are in the right season and Christians in the northern hemisphere will be out of step. For us, when the first reading tells us ‘now the winter is past … The flowers appear on the earth’ we can look all around us and see that it is true. The lectionary gives Christians only this one reading from the Song of Songs over the entire three years, and we hear it in Spring.

That the Song of Songs is in the biblical canon has puzzled Jews and Christians for millennia. The title ‘Song of Songs’ means a song of many songs, and it seems to be a collection of fairly racy love poems. It might not strike us as erotic because we no longer praise our lovers by telling them: ‘Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved’, (Song of Songs 4:2) but this is a biblical book that begins with the lines ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine’. (Song of Songs 1:2) This is a book about love and desire in which both the woman and the man express their passion for each other. Jewish commentators have interpreted this book as an allegory of the love of God for Israel; for Christian interpreters it has been about the love of Christ for his church or God for the soul. But for the last century or so commentators both Jewish and Christian have agreed that what we have here is a celebration of human love. German theologian Karl Barth said that in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures love and marriage are seen as a matter of posterity, of producing the children in whom the name of the parents will live on. But in this book, uniquely, love is seen as a matter of eros, not as a means of founding a family. Maybe that is why it is in the Bible in the first place, to show us that human sexuality is one of the good gifts of God.

Another suggestion for the reason the Song is in the Bible is that, like the Book of Ruth, it is a response to the fourth-century BC Jewish controversy on intermarriage with foreign women. This was forbidden after the return from Exile when Nehemiah the Governor of Persian Judea wrote, ‘I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair’. (Nehemiah 13:23-25) It was in response to this controversy that the Book of Ruth told the story of the great King David’s Moabite great-grandmother. It may be that the Song of Songs, in which the woman says, ‘I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem’, (Song of Songs 1:5) is also about intermarriage. If this is so, then the message of the Song is that love is the basis of marriage, not race or ethnicity. Given that at various times in various countries there have been laws against racial intermarriage I like this suggestion.

The poem we hear today is in the voice of the woman, telling us of the approach of her beloved, leaping over mountains like a gazelle or a young stag, and  inviting her to join him in the spring. He is enticing her to let her love blossom as the countryside does; to see the flowers, hear the birdsong, taste the figs, and smell the vines. Surely after all this the next sense to be used will be touch. The lectionary does not offer us the climax of the story, so in case you are wondering it ends with the woman ‘coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved’ (Song of Songs 8:5) and the affirmation ‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.’ (Song of Songs 8:7) But I want to focus on the invocation of Spring in today’s reading, the sight, sound, taste, and smell of the earth waking up all around us, because that is a gift of God that the current lockdown cannot take away from us.

Living in lockdown is hard, but we are not in prison. And, even if we were, Christianity is the faith of the imprisoned. From Paul and Silas ‘praying and singing hymns to God’ in prison (Acts 16:25) to John Bunyan writing The Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison for preaching outside the established church in the seventeenth century, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing his Letters and Papers while imprisoned by the Nazis, Christians have found that imprisonment has not separated them from God. I want to read you quite a long section from a 1948 book titled Three Came Home by Agnes Newton Keith, a memoir of her time in a Japanese Internment Camp on Borneo in what is now Malaysia. She writes:

Three_Came_Home_cover

The best thing that happened to me in captivity happened here in Kuching: I was thrown into close contact with a community of Roman Catholic nuns … I met nuns as women, and sisters, and mothers, hard workers and my friends. Here I met them as people who sang, and laughed, and made jokes and had fun. As people who prayed and fasted as a privilege and joy, not as a duty. As women who had chosen a way of life, not had it thrust upon them, and who loved it. As women who never, never refused to give help. As women who were sorry for us, merciful to us, tried to help us, because they had the Way and the Life; while we, poor fleshly creatures of this world and now cut off from this world, had nothing.

We secular women living with our own sex tested ourselves and found ourselves wanting. We could not get on without men, their stimulation, comfort, companionship … But the sisters were different, they were complete … The Sisters were great on singing and fun. Usually I loved the feast days … But some days, as life grew grimmer, I found myself wishing they’d quit singing, with nothing to sing for, from my point of view.

Line drawing of two religious sisters by Agnes Newton Keith.

They prayed for peace; believed it would come; set days and hours and deadlines for it – and when it didn’t come they said “Thy will be done,” and prayed again. They reconciled themselves, either by strong faith, or by delusion. They were happy, either because they didn’t know any better, or because what we knew better, and what kept us from being happy, was wrong. Anyway, they were happy, when the rest of us beat vainly against the bars of our prison …

I learned one thing: that it isn’t any particular sect or religion that gives one strength. It is putting your mind on something outside yourself, that you believe is good. We wives had put our minds and hearts on our husbands, which is what a good marriage is, and we now were without them, and lost. The Sisters had put their minds and hearts on God only, and they had Him, and they only were whole.[1]

I am not in any way comparing our experience of lockdown to the experience of being in prison; even less am I comparing it to the experience of being in a Japanese internment camp or a Nazi prison during World War Two. But we, too, can put our minds on something outside ourselves, which we believe is good. Like the Sisters in Kuching, we have God. And most of us are now in lockdown not for ourselves, because we have been vaccinated, but for those who have not yet been vaccinated, the teenagers who were only given the opportunity this week, and those who cannot be vaccinated, children and those with medical conditions that make vaccination impossible for them. We are keeping them safe, now, not ourselves.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was first imprisoned he wrote to his parents, reassuring them about his situation. Seeking to find good news for them, he wrote, ‘Spring is really coming now … Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that surely is a gain’.[2] He also wrote, ‘I’m allowed out of doors for half an hour every day, and now that I can smoke again, I even forget sometimes, for a little while, where I am!’[3] While I do not advise you to take up smoking, I do encourage you to follow Bonhoeffer’s example in lockdown and be grateful for the little things, including being allowed outside and able to observe the coming of Spring. I am, as your minister, encouraging you to count your blessings.

But if you are not able to count them then, as I said last week, share instead your anger and sadness with God, knowing that God will never reject you. Amen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[1] Agnes Newton Keith, Three Came Home, (1948), pp. 102-104.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 14 April 1943, Letters and Papers from Prison (2001), p. 2.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Easter Day, 25 April 1943, Letters and Papers from Prison (2001), p. 2.

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