"Who shall reign over them"-Sermon for Proper 5, I Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
“And I was alone then, no love in sight; and I did everything I could to get me through the night. Don’t know where it started or where it might end; I turned to a stranger just like a friend. I was lookin’ for love all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many faces, searching their eyes and lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of. Hoping to find a friend and a lover; I’ll bless the day I discover…another heart…lookin’ for love.”
So, these poetic musings are surely not Shakespeare or Robert Frost or Henry David Thoreau. Though…the long time Texans and country music aficionados among us will know that these words are, of course, the second verse of “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee…the great country music legend…who shot to fame when he had several hits on the soundtrack of “Urban Cowboy” in 1980. I loved this song as a child…the catchy tune and memorable lyrics. I have fond memories of listening to AM radio in the car with my dad, as we sang “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places” as loud as we could…with the radio turned all the way up. We would belt out the tune, the words felt full of meaning…we were truly singing from the heart…expressing something that felt as true as true can be. For true love…unconditional love…love that makes meaning…love that creates a sense of safety and security…love that affirms our belonging and worth…love that sustains us when our backs are up against the wall…love that indeed makes the heart sing and the world go around…is the very thing we humans desire most…we need it and our whole lives crave it. It is to the soul…what food is to the body…or air to the lungs. With it we thrive…there is no end to the good we can accomplish…but without it we wither, are diminished and can even die…spiritually…if not literally. And on some level at least, this old sentimental country and western love song expresses for me our God-given desire to know love…to be loved…to share love. As St. Augustine described the Holy Trinity, if I can quote Augustine and Johnny Lee in the same paragraph, God is the lover, Jesus is the beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the love that moves between the two. Thus, we say God is love…and that we and all that God is made…everything that exists in time and out of time…on earth and in the heavens…the visible and invisible…is created by love and for love’s sake alone.
Thus, if love is our alpha and omega…our beginning and our end…then its perceived absence…is indeed heart-breaking. And what moves me most in this song is actually the sense of desperation it evokes. I know it is nothing more than a silly little love song…yet I feel in it, in a way that has only become more deeply felt as I have aged and matured, a deep sense of genuine loneliness in the story it tells. The protagonist in the song, whether that is in fact Johnny Lee or a fictional character, is craving connection…desperately seeking an elusive love life he so wants to share with another…turning over every stone possible to find it…which leads to poor choices…fleeting affairs…empty encounters…singles bars and good time lovers that, in the end, were never true…and all of this fruitless searching, of course, all leads to an even greater sense of desperation, isolation and loneliness. And, as I think about my dad sitting beside me, singing with me, in the Oldsmobile…with the windows rolled down…in the early 80’s…with stale beer on his breath…I wonder how deeply the desperation really was for him…a man who I saw much less often than I would have liked…who I was able to sing with much less often that I would have liked…as he left my mom when I was about 5…struggled with addiction…struggled with finding regular and meaningful work…and who, though never entirely alone, still never found a spouse or life-partner, which he desired, to settle down with before he died at 58. So, I wonder now, with the benefit of hindsight, if the words felt to him like they were speaking his truth…his actual experience.
And disconnection…a love that feels elusive…a sense of isolation…a sense of looking for love but never quite finding it…is not just the experience of the sad souls that often populate the story lines of country music ballads. Bernard Levin, the greatest English columnist of the last century, writes, “Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches.”
And I know this might be a stretch connecting the wisdom of Johnny Lee with the wisdom of Holy Scripture…but I think we see, at least, something of this desperation that comes from a fear of isolation, this anxiety around being disconnected from the source of love itself in our Old Testament Lesson today from the first book of Samuel. You see the people of Israel are experiencing a sort of existential spiritual crisis at this point in their history. They are in a time of great transition, which are often indeed uncertain times for all of us. Samuel, God’s faithful prophet among God’s faithful people, is coming to the end of his life…and no heir apparent among his own children or otherwise has risen up. Samuel as God’s prophet has been for many, many years at the center of religious, social and political life in Israel…a conduit for God’s wisdom in navigating geopolitical challenges with neighboring nations…a conduit for God’s insight for rightly ordering their shared life, defined in Torah, as a particular people…and most importantly as a conduit for God’s words of comfort and hope in times of sorrow and celebration. In his ministry as God’s prophet, Samuel is the very person, the heart and focal point, where the people of Israel are looking for love…God’s abiding and sustaining love…ever present, never shaken, always with them.
Thus, with Samuel’s impending passing in front of them, their very sense of security and well-being and survival, at least, feels at stake…for the source of love and belonging to God and one another…rests on the mediation of this one very important man. So…simply said…what happens when Samuel is gone? The people are totally freaking out. However, it seems they have collected themselves to some extent and put their heads together…perhaps making decisions from a place of anxiety and fear rather than prayerful discernment…but, nonetheless, they have a plan…which is to ask for a king. Anointed by God for sure…but still a human…a political leader…in whom they hope to place their trust…their love. And Samuel knows this is a terrible idea…I think we would agree. Samuel tells the people, in doing so, in raising up a king…they will be raising up a strong man…someone who may make decisions for them…represent them among the nations of the world…but who might also require much of them…disappoint them…not always share their interests and values…not always be worthy of their love…someone who might break their hearts. Samuel is very worried that they are indeed looking for love in all the wrong places. Looking for in a human…even a king…what only the God who is love can provide.
Which, to give the people of Israel some credit, is a fault we all share or, at least, a struggle we all share. We all find ourselves, at one time or another, living our own version of Johnny Lee’s song. Desperately seeking someone or something to love and be loved by. For the desire for love and belonging…to love and be loved…is what we are made for…it is hard wired into our DNA…the very fabric from which we are woven…and that desire for a love that makes us whole and secure and even powerful is what makes us entirely human…more so, in my mind, than our intellect and ability to reason. God made us out of the substance of love and made us for love’s sake alone. Our ability to transcend instinct and biology to choose love when it is not easy, doesn’t make sense, and comes with sacrifice sets us apart in all of creation…it makes our lives purposeful and meaningful. So, we desire it more than all the rest and are desperate and lost when it feels elusive and distant. So, we look for love…and I say…good…amen…so be it. The question is to where or to whom should we look?
And so, I, indeed, invite us to consider…where and to whom…are we looking for love. Is it in all the wrong places…or all the right places? The truth is, at different times in life, it is one or the other…and even sometimes both at once. So, right now, where are we looking? Are we looking for love in singles bars and good time lovers, which is, of course, a metaphor for things like wealth, a little more money than we have, the next high, greater productivity, the praise of our employers or employees, fame, sex, a political party, power, even the love of a singular person who can never fill all the holes in our lives and to ask them to do so is entirely unfair…some of this may get us through the night…but in the end will only break our hearts. So where do we then look for the love that we need and are made for…well it is not easy…the country music scene would go out of business if it were…which would be a tremendous loss for us all.
Thus, I think it begins with some real soul searching…that starts by naming those places we search for love even now. There is real power to affirm and/or change our choices when we name them…this is the great wisdom in twelve step spirituality. And then, we redirect where needed and dig deeper the loving wells that are already filling us up. For me…just for me…my sense of love and belonging…is found in my faith…in the God from which all love indeed flows…and this relationship is nurtured in prayer, worship, service, and in my commitments to you and yours to me. The love in my life is found and affirmed in my family and close friendships, which require my intentional nurture and intentional time. The love in my life is found and affirmed in creative pursuits, whether in the kitchen or writing…and, again, both require an intentional commitment…regular time for them…set aside. And surely this is not an exhaustive list.
We are made by love and for love…and seeking after it is our life’s great work. It is not usually found in one place alone or in one person alone…instead the tapestry of God’s love is discovered in many holy places and many holy people and many holy pursuits. But, where we look matters and occasionally requires some soul searching and intentional dedication. But God’s love is there to found…sometimes in the most obvious places and people and sometimes in the most wonderfully unexpected…but then there it is…a blessed day indeed…a profound love discovered…that makes meaning, provides purpose…that fills us with wonder and security…a life found in God’s heart alone…a country song with a happy ending…our beginning and end…falling in love for the first time or the thousandth…the very thing for which we are each made. Amen.