29 August, 2021- Fourteenth Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 17B
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
If you happen to go to a wedding you’re likely to hear the mighty testimony to the power of love from chapter 8 of the Song of Songs: “For love is as fierce as death,/Passion is mighty as Sheol;/ […] Vast floods cannot quench love,/Nor rivers drown it.” (Song 8:6-7 JSB).
But the only passage from this book, that you will ever hear on Sunday are the ones we heard this morning. Verses 8-13 of chapter 2. And that’s only been since 2006…before that, you would have never heard the Song of Songs on Sunday morning. Preachers shy away from it…I have never preached on the Song of Songs…until today. And we probably all know why it doesn’t get read, or preached on very much. But I’m wondering if that shouldn’t change. I’m wondering if we shouldn’t find ways to embrace this most unique book of the bible.
Many of you know it better as The Song of Solomon, because Solomon is mentioned several times—but it wasn’t written by Solomon—some scholars think that it may have been part of some royal wedding celebrations. But it’s more correctly known as The Song of Songs…which is a superlative—like King of Kings, or the other name it is known by The Canticle of Canticles…the best of the best. In fact, late in the 1st century of the Common Era, when the rabbis were debating whether to even include it in the canon of scripture, Rabbi Akiva is said to have argued, “while all of the sacred writings are holy, the Song of Songs is the holy of holies!” [source]. So maybe we needn’t be so embarrassed about it.
Many theories have been generated over the years about the content of it—what the function is…what the meaning is—Mostly, it has been turned into an allegory. An allegory for: God’s relationship with Israel, and Christ’s relationship with the Church, or the individual soul—and it can be interpreted that way…but that is an interpretation laid on top of what no reader can long ignore which is…that at it’s heart, it is simply a series of poems…often in dialogue, that describes in very positive terms—very suggestive, sensual, erotic terms—but very positive terms—human desire, pleasure, sexuality, and love.
It’s hard to ignore that because in its short eight chapters, the Song is totally silent on every other theological and historical theme that the bible is usually so focused on. God’s justice and righteousness? Not so much. The exquisite beauty of springtime, flowers, natural world, and the human form? Boy howdy! The fallen sinfulness of humans and the shameful behavior that led to and resulted in that fall and what God is going to do about it? Nary a word. The passion, desire, and romance of new love? Dripping from practically every line. The Jewish Study Bible argues that the Song is utterly unique in the whole of scripture, because it is “the [bible’s] only extensive discourse on human, erotic love.” [JSB p. 1559]. And despite the fact that there is a description (or perhaps a vision) of a wedding procession (3:6-11) most of the text does not focus on marriage or on relations within marriage. But it clearly celebrates a view that relationships are based on fidelity, mutuality, consent, and yes, fervent love. Consequently, the Jewish Study Bible also says that it, “provides a powerful alternative to the patriarchal view […] that is far more common in the bible.” [JSB. p. 1560].
So, much as Jesus does today, it invites us to question and challenge what has been handed down to us—the “norms”; our “purity codes” that have been passed down from our predecessors…Are they really divinely inspired, or merely human precepts…Are we, in the words of one writer still living in the, “ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that didn’t include us…” [amb Emergent Strategy], or people who don’t look like us, dress like us, speak like us…? It’s an ancient text so it doesn’t challenge everything, but it does, I think, open up more many possibilities for us to explore.
Unlike so much of scripture, which is dominated by male voices, in the Song, it is the female voice who speaks first… and she is “dark, and comely…or in some translations, she is “black and beautiful.” (1:5). He is “fair, handsome,/Beautiful indeed!” [1:15-16]. They are both given equal agency, and almost equal time, in speaking the truth of their desire to be with the other and celebrate their love. Their bodies are compared to buildings, animals, fields ripe with fruit, pomegranates, apples, it’s all scented with myrrh, frankincense…it’s full of double entendre, and all very steamy. And you can see why it doesn’t get read or preached on very often…it makes us uncomfortable.
But why? If the Song of Songs, which simply celebrates mutual, consensual, fully embodied human relationships makes us uncomfortable…maybe we need to ask why? And be willing to sit with that discomfort for awhile. We get uncomfortable talking about desire, and pleasure, and love, because we’ve gotten all mixed up about them…Because for far too long, we have not celebrated, but debased human bodies by claiming them as property…or reducing them to objects…We get confused about the difference between healthy and unhealthy desires, because all of our desires have been diluted to mere consumerism; and we can’t have a candid conversation about human sexuality because it continues to be shrouded in shame and reinforced with purity codes. [See, Countryman, Bill. Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today.] But…shame and fear keeps the status quo in place…shame stifles creation…Shame, says writer adrienne marie brown, “makes us freeze and try to get really small and invisible,” whereas pleasure, she says, “evokes change […] pleasure invites us to move, to open, to grow.” [ES]
I wonder if the Song of Songs—the holy of holies—isn’t a kind of scriptural invitation to us to move…to open…to grow…to not let the imaginations of our ancestors—“the traditions of the elders”—corral us into ways of being that are destroying us. Because, as adrienne marie brown says, “At this point, we have all the information we need to create a change; it isn’t a matter of facts. It’s a matter of longing, having the will to imagine and implement something else. […because] “What we pay attention to grows,” she says. [ES] So what are we paying attention to?
The Song of Songs can be a visceral reminder to pay attention to what we love…what we long for… Instead of shame and all that is wrong with the world [and all that we imagine is wrong with us]…what if we payed attention to the beauty and sensuousness of all creation…what if we paid attention to the rich diversity of human bodies and saw them as beautiful and lovable at every size and ability…What if we stayed focused on what we love so much that we wanted, even more passionately, to work together in creating the world that we long for…a world without harassment and constant fear, without sexual exploitation and violence, without hunger, and homelessness…that’s the world God longs for too…a world of abundance…a world of generosity…a world of peace…Listen, can’t you hear God calling, “Arise, my love, my fair one, come away…and together let us create this world that no one has yet seen. Amen.
Title reference: Message of Love by The Pretenders