Mini Sermon: (Episcopal Church Lectionary Reading for August 30, 2015)



Song of Solomon 2:8-13

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.”

Nobody is quite sure who wrote the Song of Songs, but it's supposed to have been written by Solomon, and as such is canonical, though its canonicity is hotly debated in some circles. In fact, there are some branches of the Christian faith that bend themselves hard backwards and fold themselves into shapes trying to justify that it's not something that it clearly is. Christianity in many of its denominations shies completely away from its literal meaning, claiming that anyone who reads anything sexual into it is a pervert, and it's an allegory people are forcing into a sexual mold. The Jewish people, however, recognize full well that it is an erotic poem. But it's a work of such importance that the 2nd century rabbi, Rabbi Akiba claimed it to be the Holy of Holies. They did forbid anyone from treating it literally or referencing it JUST as a vulgar song, saying that anyone who sings it in a tavern or for its erotic content alone forfeits paradise.

I cannot really speak to these verses I quoted outside of their context as a result, and the way I've been asked to put these lectionary readings into E2 force them to fit into a subject-based body of work - so in terms of where they sit in the Bible, as opposed to by lectionary date. And I am glad of it, because the poem as a whole is remarkable.

It's an erotic poem about a young man stealing away to have sex with a young woman. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. They're not married, either. She speaks of him in frankly erotic terms and describes him physically. Some metaphors are lost over the centuries, but suffice it there's a reference to a hairy plant giving off its essence - which the audience knew only did so when it was firmly rubbed. Certain body parts are described as "lilies" which he "feeds among". (Take a moment to Google image search a lily, then come back here.) Likewise, she tells him to drink of her pomegranite. This is not a referece to her pouring him a glass of fruit juice at a Martha Stewart garden party with lovely floral table settings. 

There's a reference to a mare pulling a chariot. Nobody,  but NOBODY did this, because the presence of a mare in a group of stallions causes trouble - as they turn their attention away from the task at hand and outright look to mount her. That would in no way have been lost on the audience, and her referring to herself with that metaphor doesn't pull any punches.

Still not convinced? 

Song of Solomon, 5:4 - "My beloved put his hand by the latch of the door, and my heart yearned for him." The Hebrew translated here as "heart" is translated "womb" in Ruth 1:11. 

I hope we've established, despite many protests by certain biased parties to the contrary, that the poem is unashamedly, and completely erotic in nature.
In the Bible, God doesn't shy away from using any of a number of means, allegories, or experiences to tell a greater story. The Lord told Hosea to marry a prostitute, so that he would be able to write very passionately and with very human feeling about what it is like to be wronged by a lover and a spouse, repeatedly and over and over again. Not for its own sake, but to speak to the passion God has for His people, and the deep pain and regret caused by our constant turning away from him. We know this sort of thing is not off the table, and Song of Songs makes it all the more explicit.
I'm trying to remember the faith tradition I read about, or the end goal the teacher was trying to transmit, but not sure if the novice was seeking God or seeking enlightenment - but either way the teacher took the pupil, who had been bragging about the completeness of his desire to achieve that goal, and plunged him facefirst, head completely under water for a considerable time. When the student began fighting to surface, in imminent danger of drowning, the teacher said "when you want it as bad as you want air, we can begin."

This metaphor, on the other hand, approaches it from both sides. Anybody who has ever been young and hormonal and in a clandestine youthful engagement with fumblings in the dark and sharp intakes of breath at the excitement of it all can relate to the depths of passion we're talking about here. This isn't the relationship of God and man (because it's a metaphor for this, in the Biblical context) as an old married couple who, like Basil and Sybil Fawlty sleeping in separate single beds - having a cup of tea in front of the television, their relationship approved and protected by society. One based on an old familiarity, a comforting mating and settling. It's a metaphor for the kind of relationship God wants with man, at the risk of people making off-color and dirty jokes. It's the Holy of Holies because it's amazing news that God actually is giddy about you to the same degree (though not in the same way) that a star-struck 12 year old isn't sure about those new tingly feelings at the boy band concert. And wants you to have that same passion.

And, to be clear - the two lovers are unmarried. This isn't someone promised to someone else, or someone betrothed in an arranged marriage. This isn't two people who are already bound to each other by outside influences but inwardly are on autopilot about the relationship. This is absolute monogamy based on the heart-poundingly, loin-achingly searing lust on both sides, neither party WANTING anything or anyone but each other.

How do you keep a relationship that passionate? Is it possible? Some pessimists talk about dead bedrooms and what have you, but let's carry the metaphor to its conclusion. Those who maintain themselves and maintain that kind of relationship instead of relying on novelty and the Coolidge effect to get that reaction DO keep that level of passion in their relationship going. By never taking it for granted, and making that something they work towards.

But getting back to the specific part of this poem that is part of the lectionary year - remember that she is tasked with looking after the vineyards and is supposed to be doing that. He is a shepherd. They are both abandoning the tasks they have been left alone to do.  She worries about being caught with her lover between her breasts by her brothers, and his sheep might be attacked by wild animals as they neglect their duties. But here is the call - where he calls to his lover, begging her to come to him, having run to her like a stag or a gazelle. There's springtime and sexual metaphors abounding. The trees are budding, the world is renewing. Run to me. The world is full of possibility, and you're as eager to partake of it all with me as I am with you.

It's probably one of the most appropriate parts of this poem to use in the lectionary, but one of the most beautiful. One party is at the window, calling out to the other. Come to me. Be with me. Not as one who commands another, or as one who begs another, but as an excited person who has travelled a great distance to reach someone yearning just as long and as hard for the coming of that person.

To this day I cannot imagine why some pastors paint God as an abusive parent, a celestial tyrant, or a lecturing judge. The imagery here is so stark, so raw, so primal, and so beautiful - the kind of relationship anyone would do just about anything to recapture.

For God so loved the world.