Sermon on the Song of Solomon, preached 7-3-11

Proper 9A – 7-3-11
St. Gregory’s, Deerfield

How many of you have been in love?  (Don’t raise your hands.  That might be too much information.  Just think about it.)  For those of you who have been in love, I want you to try to remember those first, heady days when time either flew or stood still, when your heart and your mind and your body together yearned just to be with your beloved.  The butterflies in your stomach as you approached the place where your beloved was, or awaited your beloved’s visit.  If being in love isn’t a good memory for you, then remember the longing for a beloved friend or relative, the comfort of his or her presence.  Think of how that felt in your body, the sense of longing in absence and of delight in reuniting, the ways that it changed over time.

This is what the book the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs) tries to describe.  How many of you have heard this read in church before – except for maybe a wedding?  How many of you have read this lovely little bit of erotic poetry from the Hebrew Scriptures? It is attributed to King Solomon, but probably written later.  I invite you to go home and read the whole thing.  It’s only about 120 verses long.  Even as love poetry, it might be confusing, since it doesn’t conform to what we have been led to believe is “proper” biblical courtship or eroticism ought to be.  It’s pretty racy, and even the marital status of the couple is not terribly unclear.  Shocking!

There are some things that still make me giggle, given the different cultural contexts, like

Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins, (4:1b-2)

I’m not sure I’d want my hair to be compared to goats, nor my teeth to sheep.

Then there is the passage for today.  Here the woman describes hearing the voice of her beloved, knowing that he is coming, no, racing toward her.  He stands outside the walls of the house, trying to get in, trying to catch a glimpse of her.  He speaks again:  Arise, my love, my fair one, he says, and come away.  Come outside of the house, he says, and revel in the coming of spring.

In addition to the plain meaning of the text as simple love poetry, there is a long tradition of reading this book as an allegory for the relationship of God with the people of Israel, and later for the relationship of Christ and the Church.  What if we take this tradition seriously and allow this to be an image of God and God’s love for us?  What would it be like to understand God as a lover seeking God’s beloved?

When this sort of imagery is used, that of longing and desire, I have usually heard it used to talk of our longing for God, of our need for God, of the ways that we cannot rest until we rest in God.  All true concepts, all good ideas, well worth meditating on.

But what if we turn that around and take the vignette from today’s text at face value?  What if it’s God who is longing for us?  What if it is God who is racing to find us, running over hills and peeking through the window, calling to each of us, Arise, my love, and come away”?

Take those memories I invited you to recall, those of loving and being loved, that sense of urgency and longing, and imagine yourself as God’s beloved, being pursued by God, like the lover in today’s reading, recognizing the love in the eyes of your beloved.  Imagine it in thought, and emotion, and body.  What do you feel?

This might be a wonderful experience, a reminder of the love that we proclaim each Sunday and in our life together as Church.  But it might be an uncomfortable experience, or a terrifying experience, something you might not want even to think about.  There might be lots of God baggage (or love baggage) and the idea of God seeking you out this way is downright creepy.  You might doubt that this could be true for you, or it used to seem true and now seems far away or abstract.  It might make you feel hopeful or uncomfortable, that maybe God could long for you in such a passionate way.  Or none of the above, or some mix of all of the above.  However your respond, whatever this evokes for you, is fine.

But this is the power of the metaphor.   Even our own mixed responses reflect that we are dealing with something beyond our ability to reckon or grasp, something that we can approach only in metaphors and piece together from thoughts, and feelings, and sensations, colored by our histories and cultures, and limited by our language.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a presentation several years ago, called “The Body’s Grace.”  It is a wonderful and wise exploration of where spirituality and sexuality meet, and well worth reading.  In it, he says this:

Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. . . .

The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy. []

We say all the time that God loves us.  It’s true, but it’s a phrase worn down with use and misuse and abuse.  What does it mean to say the God desires us, in all of the levels that this means, to say that God delights in us, that we give God joy just by our very existence?  Parents and lovers, I think, come closest to understanding best what we try to say about God’s delight, that delight and joy in the mere existence of the one we love.

Williams goes on to say something even more challenging, I think, implying that this understanding of God’s love, delight, and desire for us is not only nice, but necessary:

I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy. . . .

To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identity of God’s child. [Ibid.]

It is in being loved – by God first and foremost, but also by family, by friends, by a beloved, by the community of faith – that we learn who we are and how to love.  It is by understanding ourselves as desired by God that we can offer that delight back to those around us.  And it is at this point that we can offer back to God what every lover most longs for:  the desire of the beloved.

There was a Muslim poet, a Sufi mystic, in the 13th century called Rumi. He got it, this mystical connection between romantic, erotic love and the encounter with God.  He wrote thousands of poems, pushing boundaries, blurring lines we tend to draw between the sacred and profane, exalting everyday encounters to the status of mystical epiphany.  In this poem, he echoes the Song of Songs:

Some Kiss We Want
There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body. Seawater
begs the pearl to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling! At
night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine. Breathe into
me. Close the language-door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window.

From Soul of Rumi, by Coleman Barks []

This same idea of peeking in through the window, the sense of longing to be in such intimate contact with that which fills us with our own breath.  We do, indeed proclaim a God who, like the lover in the Song of Songs, or Rumi’s moon, presses up against the window, longing for an encounter with us.  So how do we respond?

Sit back, and breathe.  Experience God’s presence as intimate as your breath entering your body.  Listen for the ways in which God is not only in your mind and heart, but also in your body.  Those places that have the spark of life for you that give you energy and joy and delight in what is around you.  Listen – with your ears, and your eyes and your heart and your gut and your mind.  Watch for glimmers of God in our sacramental life.  One the things that saves us in the Anglican tradition from living entirely in your heads—because we do that, we love our words—is that we have this rich sacramental life that reminds us that we are embodied.    Particularly in the Eucharist, we find places where we are invited to bring our whole bodies to see and hear and taste and smell and touch.  Look, too, through the windows of your neighbor, particularly the ones least likely, because Jesus has taught us that it is there that we also find the Beloved.

Above all, listen, listen:  the Voice is calling, and will always call, for you:  “Arise, my love, my fair one.”  Arise.

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