Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Gift of Love: Sermon on Song of Songs 2:8-13


For a rundown of today's church experience, find me here.

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It is hard to resist a love song. I’m going to do something I’ve done before: share some of my favorites with you. This is a song I first heard when I was not even ten years old. It was the summer of 1970, and my favorite cousin was a teenager, utterly besotted with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young:


I’ll light the fire.

You place the flowers in the vase that you bought today.

Staring at the fire

for hours and hours while I listen to you

play your love songs all night long

for me, only for me


This summer I’ve been listening to another love song, one I learned from my current favorite teenager. It’s called “Our Song.”


Our song is the slamming screen doors,
Sneakin' out late, tapping on your window
When we're on the phone and you talk real slow
'cause it's late and your mama don't know
Our song is the way you laugh
The first date "man, I didn't kiss her, and I should have"
And when I got home ... before I said amen
Asking God if he could play it again.


It is hard to resist a love song. And so here we are, reading love songs in church on a Sunday morning. It doesn’t seem likely, yet here it is: right smack in the middle of the Hebrew Scriptures, tucked in between the rather dour philosophy of Ecclesiastes on the one hand, and the magnificent, epic prophesy of Isaiah on the other. A love song… actually, a collection of love songs… actually, the most excellent of love songs, the Song of Songs, as it’s called. And, if I may just say, much of this particular book is rather scorching, truly PG-13 scripture. The passage I’ve just read is one of the tamer portions. The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is an unabashedly joyous celebration of sensuous, romantic love.


The lectionary dares to offer us a glimpse into this book just once every three years. Maybe there’s some anxiety about such a frank text making its way into our worship any more frequently than that. The Song of Songs has been inspiring controversy for at least two thousand years. Just after the time of Jesus, late in the first century CE, there was evidently a fight among the rabbis as to whether it should be included in the Bible at all. The detractors had a number of concerns. First, there is not a single mention of God in the entire book, rare for books in the Bible, though not unheard of . Second, the subject matter of the book is such that, even as it was being used in worship (on the Sabbath and at the end of Passover), it had also found, shall we say, a more rowdy, secular audience. And third, the Song of Songs contains what one scholar has called “the only unmediated female voice in all of Scripture.” Throughout much of this book, a woman speaks, and she does so in a way that is forthright, and sensuous and assertive. This was, to say the least, a departure from accepted tradition.


And yet, the detractors did not win the day. The Song of Songs has found a home in the Scripture of both Jews and Christians. So we must believe that the rabbis found, in the end, something edifying here, something uplifting. This book has something to teach us about the life of faith. This book, for Jews and Christians, is a part of God’s word, contains God’s word to us. And it is a book made up of love songs.

There is a deep and wide tradition of interpreting the Song of Songs as being, not about human, romantic love at all, but, rather, being about the love between God and people—Yahweh and Israel, or Christ and the Church. And… we’ll get to that. But I don’t want to rush away from what is right there in front of us. This is a book that celebrates human, romantic, physical love. In detail. It is about longing, and passion. Hear the breathless anticipation of the woman as she waits for her love:


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. ~ Song 2:8-9


We can hear it in the lyrics: her heart is racing, she can barely stand the waiting. She is listening with rapt attention for the voice of her beloved… we feel that when she hears it, she will be in ecstasy. And then, finally, she does hear it. And here is what he says:


“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. ~ Song 2:10b-13


The voice of her beloved entices her to rise and come away: he woos her with images of spring… the time of birth, of blossoming, of newness and beauty. He appeals to her senses, inviting her to enjoy all that is delicious and fragrant, the veritable season of love. Like my favorite love song from the 70’s there is a sense that the lovers anticipate a deep connection as they focus solely on one another: “…I listen to you play your love songs all night long for me, only for me.” Our passage is like a little duet: first the woman sings, and then the man. She calls and he responds. It is so clearly a song of love, intimate, human, passionate. So… once again, what is it doing in our bibles?


As we heard in our reading from James, “every perfect gift is from above,” and that includes the gift of love. And so, contained in this duet, implicit in it, is an affirmation of God’s blessing upon the couple. The presence of these lyrics as part of our sacred story indicates to us, in no uncertain terms, that God smiles on love… it is a good and beautiful part of God’s creation. And do you have any doubts as to what the woman replies to this invitation? Of course not… Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. We know it in our bones, without even reading the rest of the story… she rises, she goes. There is no other possible ending.


Even God loves a love song. But even more fundamentally than that, God loves us… in all our humanity, in all our physicality. There is no sign in this book that God harbors any negative feelings about human beings, including our bodies. On the contrary: God, who created us, continues to call this creation “good.”

Still, there is more to this text than the straightforward reading of it. Gorgeous, sensuous love lyric though it may be, throughout Jewish and Christian history, people of faith have found other treasures in the Song of Songs. After all, haven’t the stores of God and God’s people always commenced with the kind of invitation we find in love song?


Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” ~ Genesis 12:1

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” ~ Mark 1:16-17

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Time and again, God calls us, and we hear God’s call. It seems only natural that people of faith throughout the centuries have read these words and recognized in them the intimacy and the power of God’s claim on us, God’s beloved people. Arise, my love, and come away. God says it to us, again and again.


If this small passage has anything to teach us about our relationship with God, about our life in faith, perhaps it is in the breathless anticipation of the woman as she awaits her beloved. I wonder… how can we prepare ourselves so that we are just as eager, just as breathless to hear God’s invitation to us? How can we learn to be like Abram, who drops everything at the age of 75 to go, he knows not where? How can we learn to be like the disciples, who leave their boats and their nets and their lives to follow Jesus to do they know not what? How can we learn to be like this woman who waits with longing for her beloved’s invitation to rise, to come away, to the mystery that will be their life together? Maybe we can find a clue to this willingness, this readiness, by observing the woman as she waits. She gazes upon her beloved, with rapt attention. “Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.” She sees his attributes, she admires his beauty, his abilities. Will we be more ready to rise and go with God, to dare to follow where we are led, if we spend more time in gazing upon God, with rapt attention… God’s goodness, God’s beauty, God’s amazing acts?


Every perfect gift is from above. Everything that is good and worthwhile comes from God’s hand. Everything that stirs our hearts with joy… God gave to us. Everything that makes us breathless with anticipation… God is behind it. God, who calls us “beloved.” God, who wants nothing more than to know we are ready, willing, eager to come when we are called. God, who loves us so much that even the barriers between being God and being human could not keep that love at bay.


It is hard to resist a love song. So don’t resist. Listen. Hear this love song, right now, as God’s breathless words of love to you.


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.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Graham Nash, “Our House,” from Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, March 11, 1970.

ii] Taylor Swift, “Our Song,” from Fearless, November 11, 2008.

[iii] God is, similarly, not mentioned in the Book of Esther.

[iv] Renita J. Weems, “The Song of Songs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. V (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 364.

[v] Thanks to Rev. David Shearman for inspiring the idea of the “duet.”


1 comment:

MikeF said...

Oh, that is beautiful! I only wish I could have heard it in person... Thank you!