It's a Question of Soul Love

Preached by Derrick McQueen at St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem on Pride Sunday, June 24, 2012. Texts: Job 38:1-11, 1 Samuel 17:57-18:6, 18:14-16, Mark 4:35-41

“You sho’ is ugly!”  Who can forget that iconic line blurted out by the character of Shug to describe Celie in “The Color Purple”?  Celie, who up until this point in both the book and the movie, has no idea that there is a life that she can call her own.  Celie, teenage mother abused by her father.  Her children have been taken away from her as well as her beloved sister, Nettie.  Celie, whose life is no more than tending house, working in the garden, taking care of someone else’s children, and being used by a man when the urge suits him.  And then Shug comes along.  The women form a bond that becomes a saving grace for each of them.  For the first time in their lives they have found a love that doesn’t expect anything back from them, it just is.  Celie learns how to smile.  Shug learns how important it is to have someone who will, ‘scratch out your head when it’s ailing’.

“The Color Purple” is one of those movies and books that we as a Black community, claim as our own.  There have been plenty of backyard barbecues, that when that last rib is stripped clean and folks are just sitting around full as a tick, from out of nowhere someone will shout out a quote from the movie, “till you do right by me”, “I looked up and saw you Miss Celie and I knowd there is a God”, “see Daddy, sinners got soul too”.  The next thing you know everybody at the barbecue is practically acting out the entire film, songs and all.  I love times like those.

But for as much as we claim the culture of that movie, there is one thing we rarely talk about.  We rarely talk about the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery as Alice Walker wrote about it in her book.  It’s hinted at in the movie with a kiss, a song dedication “Celie’s Blues”, and the quiet way everybody ends up on Celie’s porch at the end of the movie.  But Walker is quite plain; these two women are partners in the romantic sense.  If they were here today, they might be marching down 5th Avenue in the Pride Parade or perhaps Shug would have headlined at Harlem Pride yesterday.

I’m not up here in this pulpit to preach to you about sexuality.  No, Saint James is a Presbyterian Welcome church.  Ostensibly we need not constantly revisit the topic, right?  No, I don’t want to talk about the privacy of folks’ intimate relationships.  Steven Spielberg sidestepped around Celie and Shug’s relationship because he knew that the American public of 1985 wasn’t ready for that aspect of Walker’s characterization.  But you see it’s not a matter of sex.  It’s a question of soul love.

Celie and Shug’s love is kind of love that heals a wounded soul and allows it to flourish.  That’s the basis of their love.  Spielberg does bring that aspect of their love to the screen and quite beautifully.

Some may think I’m up here talking about this simply because it’s Pride Sunday.  Others may think it’s because we are a Presbyterian Welcome church, dedicated to full inclusion of LGBT or SGL [same gender loving] persons in the life of the church.  Some of you may be sitting in your seats assuming that I must be gay if I’m bringing this up.  I’m up here talking about this soul love because our lectionary text brought this to my heart.  If you remember in our text from 1st Samuel verse 18:3 says, “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul”.  Since the Middle Ages there has been a debate over the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan.  Some will say it’s just an old time version of what today we call a bromance.  This definition from Urban seems to fit David and Jonathan to a tee, “Bromance: The intense love shared between heterosexual males. A form of male bonding and usually invisible to the naked eye. This bond is normally only shared between two males that have a deeper understanding of each other, in a way no woman could ever realize.”

Without going into the philosophical history of these platonic relationships, it seems there needs to be some phenomenon to describe how and why two people of the same gender can have genuine affection for one another without it being “weird”.

But David and Jonathan’s love is something genuine from which we can all learn.  Just before our passage today, David has killed Goliath and is being heralded for his victory.  Let it be known that his victory over Goliath is not just a military victory it is a spiritual victory as well.  David the shepherd has reminded the armies of Israel that they are agents of the Lord, that their fear of this giant is no more than a lack of faith.  It is this honesty, this loyalty to God and to Israel, this valor in forthrightness to which Jonathan is attracted.  He and David immediately become great friends, establishing a covenant with one another.  As time goes on in 1st Samuel their relationship deepens and grows, and upon Jonathan’s death David laments, “I am greatly distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”  But I step out of the fray of the debate as to what these passages means in describing the relationship for our political purposes.  I want to know just what is it God would have hear today.

And then I read a Jewish commentary on these passages, a Midrash; it hit me like a thunderbolt.  This example of love between Jonathan and David, whether on the down low or just an extreme case of bromance, teaches us how to love purely and of God.  The Midrash is from Avot 5:15 and reads “Whenever love depends on some selfish end, when the end passes away, the love passes away; but if it does not depend on some selfish end, it will never pass away.  Which love depended on a selfish end?  This was the love of Amnon and Tamar.  And which did not depend on a selfish end?  This was the love of David and Jonathan.”

And so this is the question of soul love I ask today, does your love depend on a selfish end?  Can you love without wondering, “what’s in it for me?” That is a question that David and Jonathan teach us to ask ourselves everyday of our lives.  I am here to confess that in the writing of this sermon, many times have come to mind where I have love for selfish ends, sometimes not really knowing it consciously.  And I must say, yes that love has passed away, painfully so.

Our Presbyterian Church is still divided over issues of full inclusion in the church.  Does our church’s love depend on selfish ends?  Is the fight because we want the church to be made in our image instead of God’s?  Is that why the men of the church fought so hard over thirty years ago to keep women out of the pulpit, keep women from being ordained?  Well, as we are reminded in Job today no one knows the mind of God.  I would like to pose God’s question to Job to the church during any hurtful time of argument when everybody thinks they are right, maybe even at General Assembly later this summer.  I’d like to ask on God’s behalf, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me if you have understanding.”

Or maybe we are more like the disciples on that storm tossed ship in Mark.  We get to hang with Jesus on the regular.  He may even choose us over the crowd.  Is this tightness we have with Christ our selfish end for loving him?  Do you sing Jesus loves me because you have come to know him?  Or do you sing Jesus loves me knowing that he does so in spite of you?  Learning how to be tight with Christ is a lifelong learning project.  Because every time we think we got this Jesus thing down we might find ourselves in doubt, sadness, or fear.  And Jesus will say to us as he did on that ship, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  And you will be filled with great awe and say to each other.  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

It’s a question of soul love, my brothers and sisters.  Can you love without depending on selfish ends?  This question is not meant to denigrate us.  It is a question that is meant to help us be closer to Christ, purer in our love for Christ, more faithful servants for the building of God’s kingdom.

Before you start to answer that question, “Can you love without depending on selfish ends?” let me help you out.  The answer is…not completely.  We cannot, are not able to, will not be able to.  But here’s the best part.  We aren’t expected to.  We can only strive towards the prize of the high calling.  And when we falter, when we examine ourselves and see our own selfish ends, when we are honest and realize that we have pointedly asked the question what’s in it for me, that’s when we are covered by God’s Amazing Grace.

For you see Jonathan and David’s love may have pointed us to a better way of loving, one where we love without depending on selfish ends, there is another…There is another lover, today…There is a lover named Jesus.   That lover named Jesus, Jesus loves us as his own soul.  Jesus loves us so much that he died on the cross for our sins.  Just as Jonathan stripped of his robe for David, so Jesus was stripped of his robe for us.  Jonathan gave his armor to David making his flesh vulnerable.  Jesus took 39 lashes, a crown of thorns, nails in his feet, in his hands and a piercing in his side…Jesus took that just for us.  Jonathan gave David his sword, his bow and his belt.  Jesus took off his crown of glory and has made sure that there are enough crowns minted for us, for when we get to glory.  Jesus did all this with no thought of gain.  Jesus had it all and gave it up for us.  Jesus paid it all, church.  Jesus loves us as his own soul, without selfish ends.  And that is why the love of Jesus will never, I say it will never pass away.

Let us strive to love that kind of soul love we’ve been talking about today.  Let us love without expecting anything in return, without selfish ends.  If you have ever held a newborn child you know that kind of love I’m talking about.  You look down at that sweet babe in your arms and your soul loves and all you want to do is whatever it takes to make that child safe and happy.  If you have ever sang a song of praise then you know the kind of love I’m talking about.  As your voice comes up and out your soul loves.  All you want to do is sing till the power of the Lord comes down.  If you cook then you know the kind of love I’m talking about.  As you watch the people around the table enjoying your food your soul loves.  That’s why they call it soul food, folks.  Your soul sends your love through your offerings of food and people are nourished in all kinds of ways.

And if you can just close your eyes and remember the first time, the very first time your realized that Jesus loves you just because of who you are…If you can remember that feeling in your stomach, remember how your heart raced, remember how you could help but smile, remember how those tears fell onto your cheeks, remember how safe you felt, remember how you didn’t care who saw you crying or smiling, if you can remember those things…that’s soul love.  That’s when you know your not just loved for your body, or for who you are as mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, son, daughter, teacher, lawyer, doctor, lover, partner, husband, wife.  But you know that your soul, your very soul is loved and that love will never pass away.

Hold onto that.  Hold on tight.  For holding on to that feeling, knowing that Jesus loves you so completely that you can feel it in your soul there is nothing in this world that can ever really harm you…even death has no sting and grave will have no victory.  That’s the mystery of God that was spoken to Job, that’s the mysterious power of Jesus that even the wind and sea obey him.

This is your legacy as a child of God.  Love without selfish ends and the love you find will never pass away.  You see it’s not just a question of which kind of love you need to have—brotherly or sisterly love, agape love, platonic love or whatever kind of love you can imagine.  To love a holy and righteous kind of love…it’s a question of Soul Love.