Arise, My Fair One, My Love

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August 29, 2021

If you are a reader of the New York Times, you may well be familiar with the story of Mikey, which it published this past Thursday. Mikey is a well-educated 34-year old family man – happily married and with a six-year old son. He studied hard at high school, focusing on language skills, and despite growing up in a turbulent time that distracted many less attentive kids, he did really well academically, and at the suggestion of one of his teachers, he became an interpreter – an interpreter working for the US forces in Afghanistan.

The hideous circumstances that have been unfolding these past two weeks have put folk like Mikey into the forefront of the news, and reading his story him was an education for me. Naively, I had rather assumed that Mikey and his colleagues had had a relatively cushy existence. I had imagined them sitting at desks, reading documents in Pashto and Dari (which I believe are the two main languages of that country), or listening into radio transmissions, and giving their western employers accurate translations.

I could hardly have been more wrong! As I learned from Thursday’s article, “Military interpreters are among the most vulnerable of Afghan allies. The nature of their work required that they accompany military personnel in the battlefield... If residents of the areas where they worked were hostile to Americans, the interpreters could be easily identified for the Taliban.”

On one occasion Mikey helped his unit avoid both an ambush, and a group of insurgents burying explosive devices directly in its path. One soldier with whom he worked regularly called him “our lifeline” and simply said, “It was because of him that we returned home alive after deployments.”

You have been, I am sure, as well aware of the heart-rending scenes of chaos and violence at Kabul airport as I was these last two weeks. But it was poignant to learn that Mikey was not simply one of many who suddenly realized that they had to flee at almost no notice. Mikey applied for his visa to come to this country – whose soldiers he had protected at great risk to his own life – back in 2012. He was granted an interview in 2018, and was then told that all he needed for the visa to be approved was a routine medical. But it never happened, and his emails to the State Department went without an answer for over two years.

Fleeing the Taliban the day after the fall of Kabul, Mikey’s wife and young son both got shot – luckily, not fatally – and he spent anxious days in hiding, ever more fearful of what would befall them all. Luckily, despite the two-plus years of no response from any official part of the US government, he had a special friend, in the person of Sgt. First Class Joseph Torres from Texas, who had encountered Mikey when he served in the Special Forces on some of the most dangerous missions of all the missions undertaken in Afghanistan.

And this last Monday, Sergeant Torres texted Mikey: “We are going to get you out” – which, thanks to the determined efforts of Torres and about twenty of his friends and former colleagues, is exactly what happened. And thus, on Mikey’s son’s sixth birthday last Tuesday, the family flew to a new life of safety and freedom.

And hearing the news that Mikey was airborne, Torres – described by a fellow soldier as a man who never cries – apparently broke down in sobs, and shouted out, “I love you, man”.

Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills…Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows... My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…

There is no doubt that the story of Mikey, and the bonds of affection that tied him to Sergeant Torres and many others alongside whom he served in the dangerous terrain of Afghanistan is a story forged in what Winston Churchill so famously summed up as “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. Whatever your views about the wider issues around the military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, the twenty-year story of Mikey’s work in his home country and his last-minute escape from the Taliban is a story full of emotion and energy – a story, properly speaking, of what we might call passion. And that makes it a pertinent story to hear alongside that remarkable pair of readings from the Bible.

For religion does not always forge a healthy relationship with the world of blood, toil, tears and sweat. In many different eras what you might regard as ‘orthodox’ Christianity has been threatened by advocates of what is usually called dualism – the idea that there is a divide between the physical world and the spiritual world. The eras of so-called Gnostic religion in the early centuries of the church, and the medieval heresy of the Cathars are two prominent examples of those who advocated such a division, and propounded belief systems based around what they believed to be the inherently corrupt nature of anything not purely spiritual.

Inevitably, physical intimacy was almost always targeted as being the most inappropriate, if not evil, instance of sinful behavior, and in almost all dualist sects, celibacy was promoted as the only good lifestyle, and even monogamous marital intimacy was regarded as being a falling short of an ideal. You will realize that it is possible to find carefully chosen verses from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that can act as proof texts for such an outlook – for it is possible to justify almost any point of view if you pick just one or two Biblical verses out of context.

But, of course, such a belief is a mockery of Christianity, which has at the very heart of our faith, the belief in a God who becomes incarnate – and such dualism is also a mockery of any proper interpretation of Judaism or Islam. And that is why it is such a remarkable and wonderful thing that in the Hebrew Scriptures, sandwiched between what is usually called the Wisdom literature and the prophetic books, and a mere eight chapters in length, we have the so-called Song of Solomon, from which we heard just a few select verses as our first reading this morning.

Its author was either wise or cheeky in attributing this extraordinary Hebrew poetry to King Solomon, for if he or she had not done so, there is no way this document would ever have made it into the canonical scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. But though it is impossible to date the book accurately, there is no doubt that its composition happened many centuries after Solomon actually lived.

Over the centuries many rabbis have claimed that these eight remarkable chapters are really about the relationship between God and Israel, and many Christian writers have claimed that they are about the relationship between Christ and the Church. But, while such insights might help us understand more fully God’s love for God’s world, manifestly this was not the principal intention of the author. The Song of Songs is – very evidently – a love song which celebrates human physical love in all its wonder and glory. And that, in its turn, reminds us of how passion, when allowed to bring out the best in us, can be the instigator of wonderful and heroic deeds of selfless love and glory.

Sadly, when passion goes wrong and is abused and misused, the end results can become self-serving, sinful, and – to use the language we hear in this morning’s gospel reading, a source of defilement. That is what is being addressed in that heavily edited extract from the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel – you will have noticed, I hope, that we were not permitted by the compilers of our lectionary cycle to hear, and thus to understand, the full argument taking place between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. If you glance at the citation on page eight in the bulletin, you will see how heavily filleted the text that you heard Anna read actually was.

Now, it has been several weeks since we last heard from Mark’s unfolding account of the Good News, so let me just remind you of the context of that passage. By the start of chapter seven, Jesus has made quite a name for himself and acquired an ever-growing reputation. In addition to several miraculous healings, he has fed the Five Thousand and walked on water. And as a result, word about Jesus has spread  - spread all the way down to the GHQ of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.

And so, as Jesus returns from the ‘other side’ of the Sea of Galilee (that is to say from gentile territory), he finds some rather difficult visitors – upright and authoritative religious leaders from Jerusalem, full of concern that the tradition they represent is being abused and ignored by Jesus and his followers. Now, in our COVID-ridden era, a dispute about washing hands probably sounds like a pressing and valid concern, and perhaps you found yourself feeling in agreement with the concerns being expressed to Jesus.

But if you look at the text again, you will rapidly realize that this is not a debate about hygiene. Jesus’ detractors are not suggesting that anybody actually has dirty hands. This is not about regular dirt and grime and best practices of kitchen hygiene – it is about defilement. It is about actions – or a lack of actions – that, for the scribes and Pharisees, places people on the wrong side of the Jewish Law, and thus on the wrong side of God.

But Jesus will have none if it. Jesus has a higher, deeper, fuller – and, indeed, simpler -  understanding of what places humans on the wrong side of God, and it has nothing to do with cultic ritual – a fact that he makes plain to his accusers by calling them hypocrites. And, if we had been allowed to hear the first of the two missing paragraphs of text excised from today’s lectionary, we would hear Jesus proffer a powerful instance of pharisaical hypocrisy that, in effect, allowed his detractors and their followers to ignore the command honor their father and mother (as decreed in the Ten Commandments) but rather to defraud them and inappropriately line their own pockets.

And that, for Jesus, is what defilement is really about. It is when – in the instance he quotes – a passion for money leads to avarice and deceit – two of the twelve things he lists as instances of human behavior that is defiling.

Which is why Jesus calls his disciples – which is why Jesus calls you and me – which is why Jesus calls the world to a better way of life. That is why he he stands…gazing in at [us]… and says…: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…”

The military action and the sustained military presence by the US and other western countries in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed 9/11 is a complex and difficult subject, and not one that can be fully and appropriately analyzed in the pulpit of a church – and that is not my intention this morning. It is certainly the case that both in America and my native Britain there have been different political and moral voices about all that has transpired – and there will certainly have been errors of judgement and sinful behavior at times, because that is in the nature of all human endeavor.

It is also true that many American, British and other western personnel, both military and civilian have incurred great risk and sacrifice in the hope of helping the peoples of those countries build better and more stable lives – as have those who worked alongside them, such as Mikey. And there is no doubt that what has unfolded in recent days across Afghanistan has a deeply tragic dimension – especially for those less fortunate than Mikey, whose hopes of US or British visas will, for whatever reason, remain unfulfilled.

This morning we hear Jesus castigating those whom he sees as hypocrites – those who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God, and who prefer human precepts to God’s teachings. This morning, Jesus is attacking any and all instances when self-interest gets in the way of our duty to love God, and to love our neighbor as we love ourself, and he is holding out clear examples of what happens when we defile ourselves through self-centered sinfulness that leaves our neighbor (whether near or far) lacking what we should be graciously giving to or doing for them.

Mikey felt betrayed and abandoned as the situation in his home country deteriorated. As the New York Times article makes clear, he and thousands like him felt ‘helpless and adrift’, and he is quoted as saying “After all my hard work and risking my life, now this is what happens to my family? They are leaving us to die here.” Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation in Afghanistan, Mikey certainly felt that those who had a duty to him had turned their back on him. I doubt that he is too familiar with the gospels, but if has encountered the passage from Mark we just heard, it might well have resonated rather clearly with him.

But Mikey was one of the lucky ones – and as one Twitter commentator on the New York Times article observed, his story is an uplifting one about ‘soldiers that didn’t give up on an Afghan interpreter when it mattered most.’

Which is why we are gathered here this morning. Staff Sergeant First Class Joseph Torres has undoubtedly been a hero for Mikey the interpreter – a friend and former colleague who evoked his passion, as he proudly shed tears and cries of love. But for all that, Sergeant Torres, like me and you, is also a fallible and fallen human who has to wrestle with his own sins that defile him.

But the story of Sergeant Torres and Mikey are a small reminder this past week of the one who really did not give up when it mattered most, and whose Passion for all the beloved children of God reaches out to us through eternity, with pierced hands and outstretched, agonized arms. The one who, even and especially when it matters most of all, never gives up – even on me and on you -  but leaps upon mountains, bounds over hills, gazes through our windows, always calling to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…"

Away from all the defilement we create for ourselves that separates us from fully loving God and our neighbor – away and into the loving and passionate presence of the God who, as we just sung, shows us “love with every passion blending,” which, truly, brings us “pleasure that can never cloy… [so] thus provided, pardoned [and] guided, nothing can our peace destroy.” Amen.