Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 29, 2021
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Commentary
Are the people who put together the Common Lectionary winking at us this week? The Lectionary across its three-year cycle contains exactly ONE text from the Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) and this is it. But it occurs on the same Year B Sunday when the Gospel lection is from Mark 7 where Jesus makes it clear that those who are focused on a legalistic keeping of the rules miss the point of God’s good creation and of the grace of God in which we all live if we are true followers of God.
Need I point out that sexuality has been one of the primary places where the Church along the ages has created the most rules? Things having to do with sexuality and gender differences have even provided some of the key flashpoints of church history. And if you want to hear moralistic preaching at its best from any number of pulpits, just let sexuality be the topic d’jour and you’ll hear plenty of rules proclaimed, most of which succeed in making even reasonably moral people feel really guilty.
So is there a message being sent in linking these two Lectionary texts? Maybe. Maybe not. But there it is nonetheless: the same Sunday that would have us hear our Lord tell us that those who focus only on exterior rule-keeping miss the boat would also have us hear these two young lovers rhapsodize about springtime and all the wonderfully carnal desires that season evokes. Maybe the message is not that there are no rules where sexuality is concerned but that as with so much of life, we’ll miss the splendors of this part of human life in God’s creation if all we can ever do is be negative about it all.
But for the moment let’s forget trying to make a connection to Mark 7 and just look at Song of Songs 2. I am helped enormously in what I am about to present to you by William Willimon’s delightful article in the first volume of The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans 2001, Roger VanHarn, editor).
Willimon points out what most of us already know; viz., across the ages neither Jews nor Christians have quite known what to do with a biblical book that appears to be a series of poems that unabashedly celebrate bodies, including breasts and groins and hands and lips and eyes and ears and . . . well, and just about everything. Since many have determined that people of faith just ought not be quite that sensual about anything—much less about sexy things—the allegorizations of these poems have long ago taken on a life of their own. Hence many commentaries along the centuries have essentially told us that when it comes to these chapters, “When you read ‘X,’ you must think of ‘Y’.” When you read something that looks physical, close your eyes and think of the wispy, the spiritual, the insubstantial.
But as Willimon and others have noted, that will never do. This book is exactly what it appears to be: a series of canticles (perhaps for use at weddings) that turns cartwheels over young love. The book nowhere mentions God, but fretting about that is a little like tying yourself into knots over the fact that no character in King Lear ever mentions Shakespeare. Why would they? They would have nothing to say or do without the playwright being behind it all. So also in Song of Songs: we don’t need to mention the Creator of all good things—including of all good sexual things—because we’d have nothing to sing about in the first place if the Creator’s presence did not permeate these songs through and through.
And just that is the point: this seemingly silly, frivolous book about young people going starry-eyed over each other celebrates creation and encourages us to pay really close attention to that creation whenever and however we can. As Willimon says, when you’re young and in love, you really do tend to believe that every daffodil that blooms in April was sent to this planet just for you! The cardinals in the trees warble their songs because your Jill or your David is just such a beautiful human being! The world seems brighter and more colorful and more alive to you when you’re in love in the springtime, but what you are noticing just then is nothing short of the wonderful work of a generous Creator God.
Want to get the idea: check out this 1970s ballad:
Yup, that’s pretty much it.
Sometimes it’s just good to be alive in God’s good world. Not always, grant you. Life is tough, too, and even young lovers sometimes grow up sadder but wiser as life knocks them around a bit and the blaze of courtship gets reduced some days to a glowing ember. But the fact is that sometimes it is good to be alive in God’s good world, good to feel the tingles and the goosebumps that come when her hand brushes lightly across your hand, when the soft touch of his lips make your lips feel like they are on fire with excitement.
These are good things, good gifts. They remind us we serve a God who delights in our delight, who from Genesis 1 forward makes it clear that when we his image-bearers revel in the splendors of his creation, God himself claps his hands together the way a grandmother beams to see her grandkids dive into those thickly iced chocolate cupcakes with an abandon that only youngsters seem to have. Sometimes there’s no sight more gorgeous to see than a child’s face rimmed with frosting! “Eat up!” grandma may say, “That’s why I made ‘em!!”
“Enjoy it, my children,” God may say, “That’s why I made it all!”
As William Willimon says, preachers who think that preaching is mostly about doling out moral prescriptions or generating long “To Do” lists by which to set people’s moral agenda for the week to come may be a bit baffled by most any text from Song of Songs, including these half-dozen verses from the second chapter. Because here is a biblical text that does not encourage us to do but to be.
True, you could turn even this exuberant piece of poetry into bad news by scolding people in case they do not exist in just this way already. But, to quote another poet, let us to the marriage of true minds not admit impediments! Let’s simply let this poem stand as a wonderful reminder that when we soak up the delights of creation, when we feel the strength and the vitality and, yes, the desires of our bodies, what we are feeling and celebrating and exercising are the gifts of God for the people of God. And that properly leads to doxology, pure and plain and as simple as that. And on one of the last Sundays of summer and as summer’s splendors begin to fade and the busyness of another fall season looms, spending a little time in doxology is not a bad thing to do. Not bad at all!
To quote William Willimon:
“On other Sundays there will be an opportunity to speak of the dangers of being overly exuberant about such matters. There will be other occasions to remind young people of their responsibilities for their feelings and their bodies . . . But this Sunday, if you accept the invitation of these two young lovers, relax, revel, lighten up, and praise God for blossoms, and leaping stags, and silly young fools, and all the rest. How much the poorer we would have been without this frivolous book of the Bible, how much the poorer our lives would be without these gifts of God” (The Lectionary Commentary, Volume 1, p. 291).
From Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABCs. Harper & Row 1973, pp. 87-88.
“Sex is like nitroglycerin: it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts. At its roots, the hunger for food is the hunger for survival. At its roots the hunger to know a person sexually is the hunger to know and be known by that person humanly. Food without nourishment doesn’t fill the bill for long, and neither does sex without humanness. In practice, Jesus was notoriously soft on sexual misbehavior. He saved the woman taken in adultery from stoning. He did not tell the woman at the well to marry the man she was living with. Possibly he found their fresh-faced sensualities closer to loving God and man than the thin-lipped pieties of the Pharisees. Certainly he shared the Old Testament view that the body in all its manifestations was basically good because God made it. But he also had hard words to say about lust and told the adulterous woman to go and sin no more. When the force of a person’s sexuality is centrifugal, pushing farther and farther away as psyches the very ones being embraced as somas, this sexuality is of the Devil. When it is centripetal, it is of God.”
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