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Sermon – February 14, 2010: The Same Image

Sermon for Sunday, February 14, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

The Same Image

Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3: 12- 4: 2; Luke 9: 28-36

There’s a scene in a “Three Musketeers” movie in which someone opens a door into

a private space, to reveal a shrine. There are votive candles, the little ones you light in a

Roman Catholic church in exchange for a small donation, to help carry the prayers of your

heart into a luminous and ethereal realm. There aren’t just a few such candles, nested in little

glass holders, but row upon row, all lit, so that there is a golden glow. The centerpiece of

this devotional space is an altar, and resting on the altar is a painting.

So far everything looks like an elaborate church of the period, the carving, the

candles, the ornamentation and the image on the altar. But it is not the Madonna or Jesus in

the frame. The person who goes to kneel at the altar in rapturous transport has there a

picture of the woman of his dreams, the fine lady to whom, in an act of chivalrous devotion,

he has pledged his heart. At least that’s how I remember it–it’s possible that it’s a woman

gazing at a picture of the man of whom she’s enamored. The thing that stuck with me was

the shock of recognizing a traditional Christian worship environment converted to a place for

romantic reverie.

It’s Valentine’s Day. I always preach on some topic related to human love and

human intimacy around Valentine’s Day. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which is the

theme of the scriptures, gets us to that part of religion which experiences visions. The

disciples who are at the transfiguration see things and don’t, they get impressions and form

notions but it’s not clear that their reactions are appropriate or particularly meaningful. The

point of the whole thing seems an additional affirmation of the special quality of Jesus as

God’s chosen one, but it’s not just the voice from the cloud or even the appearance of

Moses and Elijah which seem to support the holiness of Christ. The otherworldly aspect of

the event, the dislocation of ordinary perceptions, the luminous face of Christ, the disciples’

confused response and the impenetrable fog all point to the disciples’ having, in some

sense, entered another realm.

That realm, the place of purity and holiness and mysterious light, is something we

humans associate with God. It’s also associated, at times, with objects of romantic longing.

Something about us, about our nature, makes it possible for us to make an idol out of

someone to whom we give our heart. That’s what was so striking about the scene from the

movie. The “Three Musketeers”, like a lot of French fiction, is a bit deliberately excessive in

its evocation of the depths of feeling harbored by its main characters. However, the

convention of courtly or chivalric love, as we know from the story of Don Quixote, which also

wasn’t unreservedly sincere about it–the story wasn’t, but of course Don Quixote was–

anyway, that heritage of knights pledging themselves chastely to the perpetual worship of

some woman they’ve made into a goddess for themselves–that’s familiar enough that we

accept it in the context of “The Three Musketeers.” There, in seventeenth-century costume,

we believe it as motivation for one of the main characters.

We think we no longer do that with love, no longer worship the object of our

affections, no longer feel the depths of our souls stirred by a type of religious reverence for

someone who makes our hearts skip a beat. It may be that no one now deliberately

copies a shrine from a church and puts his or her loved one’s image at the center, and lights

rows of votive candles as an act of devotion. People still, however, find ways to ritualize

their deep emotions into some significant deed, to channel the bounding goodwill of their

hearts toward the object of their affection. It’s not only adolescence which invites over-thetop

convictions of undying devotion, but it’s common enough at that point of life for

someone to have a secret place to which to go, to gaze at a photo or some other reminder.

Young men may no longer strap on swords to do battle with the world for the sake of some

fair lady, but they’ll climb up a cut along the roadway or onto the side of an overpass and

spray paint pledges of love for all the world to see.

What’s going on? There’s some connection between what is recognized as a

religious sensibility and erotic love, and there’s even research to support it. In a survey of

people who reported various kinds of visionary and out-of-the-body experiences apart

from trauma, the single largest connection was with lovemaking. Either the depth of human

devotion or transports of sensual delight or both sometimes have been enough to unmoor

persons from their ordinary consciousness and give them the impression of having been on

another plane.

There’s two ways to simplify understanding this mixing of sacred and secular love.

One is to suggest that human beings have a powerful instinct to mate and that this inner

drive has more energy and potential than can be realized and so is transferred into other

realms, including the religious sphere. Women swooning at a Pentecostal revival are seen

as the equivalent of girls fainting at a Beatles concert, and in both instances what happens is

explained as the displacement of erotic energy. Freud, who tried to reconceive existing

insights about human nature by referring everything to basic drives, is the most familiar of

such theorists. Essentially, however, everyone whose brand of philosophy rejects the idea

of a human soul accounts for ecstatic religious behavior as redirected mating impulses.

The other way to try to untangle reverence for the holy from awe at human intimacy is

to reverse the equation. God’s greatness calls forth wholehearted devotion from the

creature’s soul, and the depth of love and adoration properly given to God can take people

onto a different level of experience. That potential rarely being fully realized, it gets

transferred to other objects of admiration and the urge to give oneself away. De

Rougemont made it his thesis in Love in the Western World that courtly love entered the

Middle Ages from suppressed religious movements. Kierkegaard’s reflections on his own

exalted feelings for his fiancée led to his analysis that what he had been doing was to

bestow ultimate value on something of less than ultimate meaning. What he meant was

that he realized he had been given life in order to submit himself to God but had found

himself offering his soul to a fellow mortal.

I believe that the soul is immortal and that it does exist in relationship to God, so I

think that this second way of seeing things is more true than the first. However, I think that

both approaches are false simplifications. I don’t think these great fundamental human

responses to the imperative to be in relationship can be neatly distinguished. Certainly

sometimes a person is mistakenly behaving religiously in a relationship between mortals,

but at what level of devotion and adoration do we decide that’s true? And is there

something inherently unacceptable about earthier human energies contributing to a person’s

depth of religious feeling?

We read the passage from Second Corinthians to link to the illumination visible on

Jesus’ face in the company of Moses and Elijah, but the whole topic of having a glow by

virtue of being close to someone else also applies to human relationships. We use the

word “glow”, not entirely as a metaphor, for the look of people whose depth of feeling

makes them radiant.

To argue about the spiritual power and potential of human physical intimacy from the

dark side of the equation is perhaps most persuasive. We know people are “playing with

fire” when they indulge passionate urges. Desire and frustration and headlong

abandonment to feeling can and does, in the wrong circumstances, unleash forces which

overwhelm sense and sympathy. People get hurt. People get killed. There is something

really there in real intimacy–in what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “knowing the other”–

comprehending, taking into oneself the other–that takes people out of themselves, that

removes them from fully being in the everyday world. That’s what makes it so good when

it’s good and so bad when it’s bad. In the same way that a religious enthusiast can be more

wholeheartedly evil than a doubter ever could be–God, after all, overrules all objections–a

human lover can declare that “all’s fair in love and war.” All bets are off, because a person is

answering to powers which seem beyond the ordinary.

That’s why the Bible has its perspective on the business of Valentine’s Day. God

understands the spirituality of everything about us in a way which we don’t very well grasp,

and wants the whole persons we are to know good. The Bible isn’t concerned about bad

relationships around intimacy just because of concerns about property or progeny. It has a

concern about purity, about the purity of heart of humans who can wholeheartedly love and

in their love know spiritual fulfillment. It is a confusing and complicated part of who we are,

with great possibilities for delight and for disaster. As with everything in life, it is something

which works right when God is first. That prevents us from making an idol of a lover; but it

does not prevent us from experiencing the wonder and wealth of human love, for God has

assigned that love its place in our lives.

 

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