Sermon Title “Work, Play, Love” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! As you just heard, the text for this morning’s sermon is from the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs, or simply The Song. I took my inspiration for this sermon from an on-line source with a number of contributors, the Theology of Work project. As part of that project, the authors and theologians go through the entire Song of Solomon, and I will reference several parts of the Song today. But I confess that I chose the verses which I did in order to find a section of text which would not make me or our worship leader Deb Kauffman blush to have to share in public worship.
The Song is love poetry, this is clear from the first verse of chapter 1. It is a song of physical sensual love between human beings — a man and a woman, or possibly two obsessed teenagers. The Song is one of two books of the Bible — the other is Esther — which does not mention God. The justification for including it the Bible, if you’re Jewish, is that is an allegory for God’s love for God’s people. Christians have claimed that it is an allegory for Christ’s love for the Church. In worship settings, The Song is most often read in wedding ceremonies, although there is no solid indication that this woman and man are married. I’d be willing to venture that it is rarely read as part of worship on Labor Day Sunday, although it is the lectionary text for the 15th Sunday of Pentecost. So I was delighted to find resources on a Theology of Work which referenced The Song at length.
You may remember the book Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. As a side note, if there’s ever a movie about my life, I’d be happy for Julia Roberts to be the title character: I realize this is unlikely to happen for so many reasons. As part of trying to heal emotionally from a divorce, Gilbert wrote about doing a culinary tour in Italy, spending time in an ashram in India, and meeting an awesome guy in Bali, Indonesia. Some of the parallels to the Song of Solomon may be obvious, but I believe that each of these narratives have a deeper message than “Isn’t physical love great?” They are narratives about what makes a joyful and productive life.
Labor Day, ironically, is a day off for many employed folks. It is not a day to work — unless you have house or yard projects which you are trying to get done — it is a day to not go into your workplace, and to appreciate all the varieties of work which folks do, and the necessity of different jobs, including the ones which are difficult or distasteful to us . The Song is about love — for sure — but that love happens in the context of work. In this case it’s agricultural work, tending a vineyard and caring for sheep and goats, both of which would have been common, familiar tasks in the ancient Middle East. The man is not the only one working. In Chapter 1 verses 5 and 6, the woman says “I am black and beautiful . . . because the sun has gazed on me.” This means her skin is dark because she’s been working outside in the sun. Having pale skin in that era would have been a status symbol because you didn’t have to work outside in desert sunlight — whereas for some of us white folks now, being tan is a status symbol that we’re able to get out of the office and go on vacation to someplace sunny. The woman is The Song doesn’t want to stay covered up at home, she wants to go with the flocks where her beloved is, and he calls her “the fairest of women,” which is not a reference to her white skin, it is a mark of his love for her as she is.
In Chapter 2, The Song celebrates the coming of spring and the birds calling and flowers blooming and vines putting forth grapes and figs putting forth fruit. It is a celebration of creation and the fruitfulness of the earth. It’s also a time to work — chasing out the foxes who ruin the vineyard, taking the flocks out to pasture. This is a portrait of an ideal life — a life which is connected to the world, where there is work to be done, and where there is passionate love.
I don’t know what passionate love there is in your lives. That is a rhetorical statement — I don’t want to hear details. Really. But it’s probably safe to say that that looks different now than it did when you were an adolescent, or newly married. Your work probably looks different now than it did in those years, too. If you did agricultural work as a young person, you probably don’t do it as the same pace or intensity as you did then. You likely were not raising children when you were a teenager, and certainly not caring for grandchildren. If you were training for a professional field or in a trade, you have more experience or responsibility, or you are doing something completely different now. The balance of work and play is likely different now — you have more financial resources to vacation or travel, or, if you are retired, you have different commitments with your time and energy. The Song is poetry about the infatuation of love in the midst of other responsibilities, but I believe it still has something to tell us about the balance of a healthy life: in whatever stage of that life we are. At minimum, that life should include people we love, activities which give us purpose, and time to enjoy them.
There is, of course, a difference between a job and a calling. I am fortunate that, for me, those are the same. Because of your generosity, I am paid to do the work which I feel that God has called me to do: the work of being a pastor, and the responsibilities which come with that. Part of what I love about being a pastor are the things I get to do which I love, but are not technically part of my job: leading singing, painting banners, designing things for worship. My sabbatical last summer was wonderful not because I didn’t have to do anything for three months, it was wonderful because I got to plan things related to my work which I would not have had the time or the resources to do otherwise. It was a life-giving balance of work and play and purpose and rest.
I believe that God calls us into many vocations which are not set-apart ministry. I know teachers and physicians and nurses who feel just as called to their work as I do to mine. In some cases, people can have a job and find a way to make it serve others, effectively turning a job into a calling. That doesn’t mean that any calling, including mine, is joyful all the time. Even when you believe what you’re doing is important, some days are not that great; some situations are tough. Even when we are fortunate enough to be married to someone we love, that doesn’t mean that things are always terrific. Talk to Tim McFadden if you don’t believe me. The Song is a description of the best of what life can be — maybe even the way God intended life to be. Not in all the specifics — you don’t have to run a vineyard or herd sheep — but in the holistic sense of doing what you love, loving the people you are with, and loving the God who has given you this work and this calling.
I would say from my own experience, a calling may not be immediately obvious, and it may not be very financially rewarding. You can’t ignore the need to put food on the table and have the resources to care for yourself and other people. But if you turn your back on things you love, you do so at your own peril. If you defer the things which give you joy and purpose until you have more money and more time, you may not get the chance to do them. Ever. Part of the appeal of The Song is that it portrays the urgency of being in love, and how thoughts of our beloved occupy our minds and inform our actions. If you have a positive purpose which is calling out to you, I hope you can find space for that calling to grow and flourish. Creekside Church has started ministries and projects in the past because of the passion and vision of one person or a small group of people. The Prayer Garden and Bee ministry and Seed to Feed gardens are all examples of ideas and resources and expertise which have come together and become ministries. This is a God-thing, but it happens when there are people who are willing to pursue and work toward something they are passionate about.
I don’t know what your plans are for the rest of Labor Day weekend. Some folks in the New Life Class know there’s going to be a lot of activity out at the McFadden house tomorrow. We know that are folks from Creekside traveling to North Carolina for the National Older Ault Conference, and someone who is traveling to Europe to do work which he loves. I’m sure there will be a lot of folks in Florida cleaning up after storm damage — including folks who are helping neighbors, and even volunteers who live in other states and are taking their own time to serve strangers. Whether you consider what you’re doing as work or play or rest, I hope you will find joy in whatever you are doing. I hope you will find purpose in serving others or learning something new or creating something beautiful. I hope you are aware of God’s goodness — not only God’s creation for everyone, but for God’s care for you and for God’s purpose for your life and your work. I have a little dish in my office which says, “How awesome is it that the God who made the mountains and the rivers decided that the world need one of you as well. The world needs whatever God has given you to share. I pray that we will live into that calling whoever we are and wherever we go. Amen