Epiphany 2B: To What Are You Joined? Eli, the Fig tree, & the Bridal Chamber of the Heart
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
To What Are You Joined? Eli, the Fig tree, & the Bridal Chamber of the Heart
It’s hard to hear our passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and not just dismiss it as more prudish Church-talk about what people do between the sheets. Haven’t we heard enough of the Church opining in righteous indignation on the bedroom habits of consenting adults? Perhaps. But, that’s not really what Paul is talking about. Sure, on the surface he’s talking about “fornication with prostitutes,” but the spiritual issue he is raising goes far deeper. The question that St. Paul is putting to the Corinthians, and to us, is this—“To what are you joined?” If it’s true (and I think it is) that we come to resemble that which we worship, then Paul’s question is really about where we place our attention, to what we devote our efforts, to whom we give our lives. Do we give ourselves away, lose ourselves, forget ourselves, in the service of that which is life-giving? Do we, through the consent of our “Here I am!” make our lives little openings in which God can act in and through us? Or are we worshipping something that keeps us stuck in the same old patterns of unforgiveness, pain, isolation, loneliness, and judgement of ourselves and others? If it is true that, “The two shall become one flesh,” as Paul says, we’d better bring to awareness, and make conscious, that to which are joined.
Recently, I’ve been reading the works of St. Ephrem the Syrian—the 4th century Syriac saint who did a lot of his theologizing in the form of poetry, hymns, and songs. One of the central metaphors Ephrem uses is of the bridal chamber. Whether we are single, married, divorced—we are for Ephrem “wedded,” and joined to something. The Christian life is all about the union of the lover with the Beloved, the disciple with the Risen Christ in the bridal chamber of the heart. Sometimes this union refers to the coming Kingdom, but often, this union is spoken about as something that happens right here, right now, in this very life. Ephrem rings the changes on the reality of the bridal chamber in his poetry and songs. Sometimes it’s Israel wedded to the Most High. Sometimes it’s the Church wedded to Christ, and sometimes it’s the heart of the individual soul in union with Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
In one of Ephrem’s hymns we hear the words, “How wonderful is the Abundance/that the Lord should reside in us continually,/for He has left the heavens and descended:/let us make holy for him the bridal chamber of our hearts.” We already have that which we seek. The Lord resides in us continually. We don’t lack for anything—there is an abundance that has been gifted that puts to rest all illusions of scarcity. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what Paul is telling the Corinthians—“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” In a similar vein to his Letter to the Romans, Paul is reminding us of who and whose we are. We do not live to ourselves. Having been created in the image and likeness of God, having had the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, our bodies are not really our own. Our lives are meant to be bridal chambers, places of encounter where we can fling open the doors of the heart to the love of God that is already in us and with us at all times and thereby become vehicles for the Divine Love in the world. Alternately, we open the doors to something else—the pursuit of wealth, safety, security, affection, esteem, or simply distracting ourselves to death (and posting it on Facebook in the process, of course).
Paul seems to put before us a kind of choice—join yourself to the Holy Spirit that already resides in you and glorify God in your body, or join yourself to something else in the pursuit of self-centered pleasure that inevitably treats the other as object of instant gratification. That’s why this whole passage from Paul’s letter isn’t just about what happens in the boudoir. At it’s most basic, fornication is essentially the self-centered pursuit of our own desires that reduces other people and God’s good creation to an object for use, manipulation, control, and consumption. If we are wedded in the bridal chamber of the heart to looking good in the eyes of others, for example, we don’t ever really see those others in front of us. They are faceless pawns in our program of needing to curry favor, and all the while the dazzlingly radiant particularly of that unique person in front of us—at the grocery, at the traffic light, at the communion rail—fades away. The brilliant shining forth of that person gets run through the (often unconscious) program of—“How can I use this person to get what I want?” We are fully clothed, sitting across from someone in a boring meeting watching PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide, but Paul would call it fornication. We’ve joined ourselves to the insatiable need for praise and reduced others to objects to be used up, consumed, in its pursuit.
In our gospel for today, this same question, “To what are you joined?” is enacted in the calling of the disciples. At the start of his earthly ministry, immediately after his baptism in the Jordan by John, Jesus begins assembling that rag-tag group of foibled and fallible fishermen through whom God’s love for all of humanity is made known. Philip, brimming with excitement upon encountering Jesus, tells Nathanael the good news—that for which you yearn, (and that for which you yearn but don’t even know you yearn) is right here beckoning, calling, inviting, welcoming. But Nathanael responds with the paradigmatic wise-crack of resistance to Divine Love—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael probably believes quite firmly that the God of Abraham and Isaac will eventually turn up in the form of a Messiah. I don’t doubt that. Nathanael just can’t believe that God would turn up in the podunk town of Nazareth born to a guy named Joe.
To what are you joined? Nathanael is wedded in the bridal chamber of his heart, to his own assumptions about who God is and how God should act. And what is the effect of his unfortunate union with that which he has habitually taken to be true? It blinds him. It binds him. It circumscribes him. He can’t see what God is doing under his very nose because he’s ruled out the possibility from the get go. It’s interesting that Jesus sees Nathanael under a fig tree. He’s a guy, like each of us, who enjoys the shade. He enjoys the way the shadow moves predictably across the ground and adjusts himself accordingly to keep himself out of the heat—the fire of God’s love for each of in Christ. Nathanael is sheltered in the way that we might remark of someone, “They are very naïve; they’ve led a sheltered existence.“ Stuck in the shade of comfortable tree whose trunk fits perfectly into the small of back, he’s wedded to what he thinks he knows, and won’t step outside it’s circle. It’s the fig tree of habit and fear.
Jesus, in his infinite wisdom and infinite compassion sees Nathanael and liberates him from his world of stubbornly held ideals, and of his puritanical perfectionism that blinds him to the unfolding of God’s purpose right here and right now. “Come and see” is really Jesus’ way of shaking Nathanael’s tree, so to speak. “Get up off your fanny and out of the shade of your assumptions. Follow me. Open your eyes. You’ll see that God isn’t just a big city kind of guy. You’ll see the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending right here, smack dab in the middle of your ordinary life—on weeds, widows, and washing-machines. Don’t let words like “glory” and “messiah” fool you, Nate. Burning bushes are everywhere if you take off your shoes, drop your habitual way of making sense of the world and learn to see.” God, as Teresa of Avila writes, “walks among the pots and pans.” God walks past fig trees. God walks through the car wash, the bank, the doctor’s office, and the ER. God walks through the end of a relationship. Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is always present, and it’s the presumption that He’s not that leads to 90% of our problems in the spiritual life.
We see the same kind of thing happening with Samuel as well. I love that detail that we get at the beginning, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Ain’t that the truth. And it’s Eli, the one whose eyesight is growing dim, who actually sees. Eli, roused from sleep, patiently tells Samuel that it’s not him calling upon him, but God. Samuel’s first response, his habitual response, the response he makes out of his assumptions, is to go his adoptive father. Family ties. The known and the predictable. This is his version of, “Nothing good can come out of Nazareth.” But Samuel gets persuaded by Eli that he needs open himself to something other than what he expects. It’s significant that Samuel is lying down when the Lord calls for a fourth time (like us, he’s a slow learner)—it’s a posture of surrender, of dying to self, of giving oneself up to “greater things than these.” Flat on his back, dead to his old way of doing things, Samuel weds himself to the Lord in the bridal chamber of the heart. His “Here I am,” is the moment of betrothal. The only thing missing is the rice.
This week, my prayer is that each of us keep our eyes open for the fig trees and Elis in our lives to which we run for shelter when we hear the call. May we not be so wedded to our ideas and assumptions that we miss one who is goodness, truth, and beauty, walking along in a place where there can be nothing good. May our lives, with Samuel, be one continuous, “Here I am!” May we make room for Christ, the Bridegroom, in the wedding chamber of our hearts, that our lives might be cracks in the grim facade of business as usual, and eruptions of unexpected love, even here, even in this 21st century Nazareth, even among the pots and pans.