The Sunday Sermon: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 26, 2018
Scripture: Song of Solomon 2:8-13
About a year ago I found a meme on the internet, a piece of text that was being sent around. It was titled “Dear Human.” Or it is titled “Dear Human.” I still have it. It reads:
Dear Human: You’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t come here to master unconditional love. That is where you came from and where you’ll return. You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling. Demonstrated through the beauty of … messing up. Often. You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be human – gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. And then to rise again into remembering.
Pray with me.
And listen for the Word of God. Read Song of Solomon 2:8-13 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I decided I was going to give his lectionary thing a shot this early Fall. This passage is the Old Testament reading for this Sunday. It’s the only time it is used in the lectionary, the collection of scripture readings chosen over a three year period that provides a pretty thorough reading of the Bible.
Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs and Canticles, appears in the Christian canon of the Old Testament as the last of five books grouped together as books of “wisdom.” But its content is very different than the other books of wisdom – or indeed from that of any other book in the Bible. As we read the eight chapters of this book, we find neither ethical-reflection as in Job, nor exemplification of that “fear of the Lord” which is wisdom, as in the Psalms, nor the writings of sages as in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. And assuredly we don’t find salvation history or torah or prophecy as in the rest of the Old Testament.
Throughout the ages, interpreters have agreed this writing is a series of love poems voiced by feminine and masculine characters to one another with the occasional contributions of one or more choruses. Overtly, the poetry is wholly secular: neither God nor any religious practice of belief is mentioned. It’s presence in our canon of Holy Scripture urgently calls for explanation. Can a canonical book of Scripture really be as secular as this poetry seems to be? And if it has some hidden religious or theological meaning, how do we discover it?
So, yes, throughout the ages, interpreters have agreed that Song of Solomon is a series of love poems voiced by feminine and masculine characters to one another, with the occasional contributions of one or more choruses. But these same interpreters have disagreed greatly through all those ages regarding those larger and more important questions: Who are these characters and what does love poetry have to do with the life of faith? Responses to these questions have taken two apparently contradictory paths: the allegorical and the historical.
As early as the second century, some Jewish interpreters claimed that the book was an allegory for God’s love of Israel. Such an allegorical reading goes a long way in explaining the book’s connection to Passover, the Jewish festival celebrating God’s special favor for Israel. In early Christianity, the poems were understood as allegories for Christ’s love for the church, the human soul, and/or Mary, often called the bride of Christ to underscore her unique role in God’s salvation.
Historically speaking, the poems have been interpreted as referring to a human couple, the most common interpretation being that these are poems exchanged between King Solomon and a peasant bride, based on the mention of his name in the book’s title and in chapter three. More contemporary scholars today, consider these poems as anonymous secular love poetry similar in style to Egyptian, Arabic, and Syrian love poems of the same period.
The allegorical and the historical approaches are often considered at odds with one another. The allegorical is pure or chaste and the historical permissive and profane. But more recently, commentators and interpreters have suggested that the approaches may be complimentary. The life of the soul (allegorical) and the life of the body (historical) are not distinct. To be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self and to enter a realm of sheer delight, in which human and the divine can merge.
Our passage this morning illustrates how “love” and “delight” are intricately interwoven. If we allow it, if we can get beyond any and all of the prudish pre-judgments we have about this book’s poetry, or any writings that depict human relationships so openly and unashamedly, if we allow it, this passage and the poetry of this book stirs in us a desire to be involved, to live beyond ourselves, and to be a part of the incredible creation that is ours in this world.
In our reading this morning, we hear the invitation to come into this “world of grace:” Arise, my love, and come away.
Join me. Join us. Join all those who have already received and accepted the invitation. Become involved in the Love that creates and sustains all of creation and that will ultimately redeem and save it.
In the later verses of our reading, we are reminded of what we know all too well, of what we have all experienced and too easily focus on: winter’s chill and the gray despair of ceaseless rain. But … “for now the winter is past and the rain is gone.” And that’s not all! In this new reality, the negative is not only absent, the positive is present! “The flowers appear on the earth … the turtledove is heard in the land … the fig tree puts forth fruit, and the vines are in blossom giving forth fragrance.” However grim things may have been for us in the past, however apprehensive and fearful we are in the present, our winters will yield to spring, our rains will end, and flowers will appear, if we “come away.” All we need to do is “Arise!” And go away with our beloved: Love, itself. Dare we?
Dare we not?
“Perfect Love” is not a love without flaw or misjudgment. It is not a love that never fails or never falls. It is a love that gets back up when it does fall, and that steps back in when it does fail. It is messy, and sweaty, and broken. But it is also universal, and whole, and “infused with divinity.” And while loving and being loved, in “perfect imperfection,” are not the only goals of human existence, they can be experiences that transform us, not only leading us to the One who creates Love, but leading us to one another and to the incredible creation all around us. Seeing ourselves not as perfect but perfect for someone, wanted, sought after, chosen and called forth, is cause for poetry and song!
Whether this song is read and heard as a love story between two people or as an allegory about God’s love for all creation, including you and me, it’s beauty is that it invites all of us, all humankind and all creation, itself, to love as if life depended on it. As it, indeed, does.
The Song of Solomon … There is no long-term consensus in even the most elementary points of this book’s interpretation. Even its title is read and translated differently according to an interpreter’s biases and preconceptions. The usual translation of the full title is The Song of Songs, Which is Solomon’s. That’s the first verse of the first chapter. That first part, “The Song of Songs,” is a literal translation of a Hebrew phrase that is grammatically clear: “X(singular – Song) of X(plural – Songs).” This is the Hebrew way of expressing the utmost of something, for example “Lord of Lords” meaning “the most lordly Lord,” or “Holy of Holies” meaning “the holiest of Holy Places.”
But it’s not actually a common expression, used very often, in the Bible. When it is, its uses are related to the incomparable being of God. So … this “Song of Songs:” the “Song above all songs.” Could the writer or writers of this book have intended this to be noticed? Are we being led into understanding that this writing, “The Song of Songs,” may be about “The Godliest Song?” … Love, itself? Let’s imagine it:
Dear Human: You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be human – gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. Perfect Love.
Arise, my love, my fair ones, and come away; for now the winter is past (and) the rain is over and gone.
Let us prepare together at the Table set before us to “rise once again into remembering” as we sing our Song of Songs, loving and being loved as Christ loves and is loved.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / September 2, 2018