A Sermon for 2 September 2018
Once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary, we are taken into the Song of Solomon. Today happens to be that day. True confession from me is that early in my ministry as a solo pastor, a wise retired English professor named Ivol asked me to co-lead a study of Song of Solomon at the assisted living facility where she lived. She said: “I’ll handle the poetic context and you handle the theology.” The request alone should tell you something about the spunk of the woman I was dealing with! Soon, we were watching the chin-hit-the-table reactions of the ladies who Ivol wrangled up to attend. Several of them would blush as Ivol recited the steamy poetry of Song of Solomon. Giggling they would say: “I had no idea such things were in the bible! We certainly were NOT taught this as little girls in Sunday School!” . . . To ensure none of us find ourselves in our twilight years unaware of the full range of Holy Scripture, listen to a reading from Song of Solomon 2:8-17, 8:6-7. Listen for God’s word to us.
“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom. My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.”
And from chapter 8: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
What is your favorite love song? Every generation has them. Remember: “You must remember this: a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply. As time goes by” (As Time Goes By, by Frank Sinatra). When I was approaching adulthood, many loved the one about star-crossed lovers from two different worlds. Even if they couldn’t be together, Whitney Houston crooned: “I will always love you!” (I will Always Love You, Whitney Houston). . . . What about love songs for God? Isn’t it one of the reasons so many cherish the hymn Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound? It’s a rousing song of our love, our deep appreciation, our absolute devotion to God – the One of grace who doesn’t have to be so dedicated to us; but is. From the haunting Lenten tune of What Wondrous Love is This, O my soul, O my soul to More Love to Thee, O Christ. Such songs can strike a chord that resonates all the way to the deepest places in our hearts.
Song of Solomon can do that, or the Song of Songs as the book of the bible often is called. But this little eight-chapter book squeezed in between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah gets minimal respect. Chances are high that most Christians never have read it. In fact, it’s been proclaimed the most secular book of the bible because God is nowhere referenced in it. There’s not even mention of the standard holy-stuff like praying, or fasting, or observing religious celebrations. There’s not one lick of typical God-infused scripture here. Nonetheless, it’s in here – ancient Israel’s kind of love song. Actually, it’s a collection of beautiful love songs – passionate descriptions of love and two lovers’ visions of one another. And it just so happens to be the songs of two whose love was considered unacceptable in their time. One mate is believed to be Solomon, the great wise king of the Israelites, famed son of King David. Though some scholars believe it’s just attributed to him as a way to make it an acceptable inclusion in Holy Scripture. The other lover seems to be an unexpected choice – which she herself declares in chapter 1:5-6: “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” She’s not like all the others her beloved could have chosen. Her skin is dark from being forced to do manual labor beneath the hot sun. No one would consider her fit for a king. It’s the oldest love story out there, right? Whether class or race or both is the issue, we can’t be sure. Nor do we know what great wrong caused the anger of her mother’s sons to burn against her. Was she born by one other than her brothers’ father? O had her brothers caught their little sister sneaking off before? History has not left us the code to unlock the mystery. But, throughout this love song, we do learn that the two lovers had to fight for their right to love. In their day it was unheard of for two people from such differing backgrounds being together! The sneers of Jerusalem’s daughters lurk around every corner. The lovers have to sneak off to the fields in order to be together, hastily seeing one another between this duty and that. Never being able openly to display their love without being despised. Likely it made their love grow stronger. Perhaps their poetry became the place to passionately declare their right to love whomever, no matter the prevailing cultural norms. In their writing is their insistence on loving whomever their heart desires.
And it’s pretty steamy! Filled with surprisingly sensual language, it sounds more like one of those Harlequin Romance novels than ancient Holy text. Here’s how the book begins. The lover pleads: “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; . . . draw me after you, let us make haste” (1:2-4a). And in chapter 4:9-10, the lover proclaims: “You have ravished my heart, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love . . . how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.” And then there’s 5:1 and following where the lover proclaims: “’Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’” She responds: “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.” Then, of course, these Songs contain my favorite parts – the lovers’ descriptions of one another. Here’s what ‘ole Romeo declares to Juliet: “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat . . . your two breasts are like two fawns, your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon, . . . your nose is like a tower of Lebanon” (7:2-4) WHATEVER??!!! It sounds like he’s calling her some sort of big-nosed, giraffe-necked, pot-bellied freak with deer for a chest! CLEARLY this poetic beauty is lost on our post-modern imaginations.
So what’s the deal? What’s the Song of Solomon doing in Scripture and how in the world did it EVER make it into the lectionary – even if only for one week in the three-year cycle? . . . Well, a lot – a lot of good that is. And not just as an allegory of the love between God and the soul or Christ and the Church as some over the years have considered the Song of Solomon. This little book is in the bible and it has the power to do a world of good as a celebration of human love – a helpful corrective for us. Because think about it: what messages have made their way down through history about passion? It’s something to stay away from, right? Something to be feared! Passion lies in the realm of uncontrollable, irrational emotion. Passion can cause us to do crazy things – spontaneous things – out of control actions. Think young love first pulling you into it’s grip!
Of passionate love, one commentator writes: “to be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self.” Love moves us into the realm where human and divine can merge – where we can get a good education in loving and being loved (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4; Julia M. O’Brien, p. 5). Indeed, it is one of God’s greatest gifts – to open ourselves to the mystery of the passion moving in us. . . . And if for another human being in this world, then how much more for the Holy One, who has gone to great depths for us? Isn’t it time we fervently sing our love songs to the One who got more than a bit passionate in loving an entire creation? Getting physical, as God took on human flesh to walk among us, fiercely loving for our welfare. Definitively showing in Christ that love indeed is stronger than death. Passion is fiercer than the grave!
Song of Solomon invites us to love. To give of ourselves to one another like the One who passionately loves us every day and at last, beyond the grave. Brothers and sisters of Christ, celebrating the great gift, in our human love; let us love with the passion of God!
In the name of that Life-giving Father, that Life-redeeming Son, and that Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)