First Congregational Church
October 11, 2015
20th Sunday after Pentecost
“What Do You Call Him?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
What do camels use to hide themselves? Camelflauge! Why don’t camels laugh at desert jokes? Because they have dry humor. Why was the camel so proud of his son? He was the spitting image of the dad.
This morning’s message is sort of two parts that are very much like the intercalations that the writer of Mark’s gospel used. Intercalations, also called sandwiches, are two pieces that make a point that neither could do by themselves. The Bible itself would be an intercalation, because the Old Testament, with it’s rules and history, and the New Testament with its grace are more together because of the promise and fulfillment of Jesus, the Messiah.
So the first part of the sermon sandwich today comes from the anthem, “The Lily of the Valley.” It’s a term some of us have probably heard often enough, but probably haven’t given much serious thought. The same goes for the other phrase: “Rose of Sharon,” which, although it is wasn’t in the anthem, is often paired with the Lily of the Valley.
These two phrases come from the Old Testament, Song of Songs. For whatever reason, Song of Songs is the Jewish reference to that book, and long ago it was Canticles, or the Canticles of Canticles - to the Catholics. Some Bibles call it the Song of Solomon, because the king supposedly wrote it. Whatever you want to call it, the references to flowers comes from the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two and is a conversation between two people who are definitely in love.
He says, “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves.”
She says, “How handsome you are, my beloved! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant.” (which means a green countryside.)
He says, “The beams of our house are cedars; our rafters are firs.” (remembering that trees were not always easy to find in that area.)
She says, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
He says, “Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women.
She says, “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men.”
While this passage is sweetly poetic, there are other parts to that book that don’t make any sense for use as bedtime reading for little ones, if you catch my drift. And some people say the Bible is boring!
We’re not perfectly positive about what the lily of the valley refers to, but it’s probably not like what we call those little white bell flowers that smell so fragrant. They were probably more of a crocus, tulip, iris, anemone, or gladiola, and symbolic of friendship. I don’t think it would be unfair to use the lily of the valley to mean sweetness or beauty of relationship.
The rose of Sharon reference is quite like that of the lily of the valley; possibly being a crocus, tulip or Narcissus. In Hebrew, the word Sharon means a plain or a level place. Some say that because the rose of Sharon grows in dry, unfavorable conditions, it symbolizes Jesus coming from the root of Jesse and David. So perhaps the long of it is that rose of Sharon symbolizes depth of relationship.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Thank you, Gail. Some of you may recognize the name of David Lose from Philadelphia’s Lutheran Seminary as one of my current sermon prep professors. He talked about this passage as one that was terrifying to him as a child. David was the fourth son of a pastor, which meant that growing up in the sixties, his family didn’t shop at the Puma, Nike, and Adidas stores. And he was well aware that knock-off brands and hand-me-downs were not what cool kids wore.
But he had to lay his experience against that of his mother’s, who grew up in India the daughter of a missionary. David said, “You can only sit at the supper table protesting the lima beans in front of you and listen about the starving children in India so many times before you realize that compared with almost any other part of the world, you are, in fact, quite well off.”
So did it mean that he was going to hell? Knockoffs though they might be, his Thom McCann specials still beat showing up at school barefoot, and the thought of selling them so that he could send his lima beans to India was “grievous.” And Mr. Lose didn’t seem to find much comfort when gospel writer Mark pointed out that Jesus loved the rich man. If that’s love, he said, he didn’t want anything to do with it.
Sometime in the nineteenth century, to spiritualize this same passage, someone came up with the idea of “the eye of a needle” being a small door in a larger gate door into Jerusalem where the camels would have to be unpacked before entering in. There were no such doors. Later on, Mr. Lose, as hopefully some of us, realized the passage didn’t have to be read literally and that what Jesus really meant was unburdening ourselves of whatever might be keeping us from relying on God. That burden might be wealth, but it might not be, and it is most very likely that whatever the burden, it is sure to include the spiritual things associated with those burdens that would keep us from living fully in the kingdom of God - now or to come.
It was poet-pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes who helped to bring together the thoughts that lead to today’s sermon title. He said, “We continually have to resist the belief that there's something we have to do to “be saved.” We think there are “good” people (the man thought Jesus was one) and others who are less so. We believe our salvation is up to us. Clearly the disciples think so. Were that true, of course it would be impossible. But it's up to God. And God has already “saved” us.
Take note that Jesus looks at the man and loves him. The man does not need to do anything for Jesus to love him; he already does. He responds to the man not with requirements but with love. Because that's his point. There is no requirement. God already loves us. We are already saved. There is no salvation beyond God's love; God's love is not insufficient for our eternal joy. All we need to be “saved” from is our own distrust. The man seems to have great possessions but “lacks one thing.” Jesus looks on him in his poverty and sets him free: let go of what you can measure and what you can lose—either riches or goodness—and grasp only what is infinite, what is already yours.
Meditate on this infinite love of God. It is yours, now. It surrounds you, fills you, gives you every breath. You can't deserve it more or less. It is simply here. Even as you ask and wonder, maybe even doubt, God looks at you with love. God's delight is not up to you. Let this light break in, and become you.”
So, with all that of which we’ve been reminded, all that is behind us, what do we call Jesus? “Good” - although correct, to me seems inadequate. Gracious, honorable, Savior - in all the sense of the word - is closer - in my mind. Redeemer, Lily of the Valley, Rose of Sharon, Deliverer, Rod and Staff, Holy Messiah, Emmanuel, Revealer, Comforter, Son of Righteousness, the Truth, Wisdom of God - are just a few of what you might call Jesus. Whatever words you might use to describe your relationship to him, names mean nothing unless we act on them. So shall we pray?
Great God of all things, thank you for the gift of language. Sometimes we forget words or struggle to find the right ones. But at the end of it all, you give us words to describe our relationship to you and with you and for that we are glad. We thank you for names, that we might live into them, lean into them when we have cause. Help us to so embrace your free, unmerited love that it spills over as inspiration to others. For our ability to have a free relationship with you that will never be based on our own efforts, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.