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Looking Through the Lattice

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 30

The Lesson: The Song of Songs 2:8-17
8 The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 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.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 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.
14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
15 Catch us the foxes,
the little foxes,
that ruin the vineyards—
for our vineyards are in blossom.”
16 My beloved is mine and I am his;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.
17 Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

So I have confession to make. I’ve been waiting years for that Song of Solomon passage to come up in the lectionary so I could preach it. I’m sure I’ve seen it already in our three-year cycle of prescribed texts, but for whatever reason, it’s never seemed the right time. Now may not be the right time either, given the dreadful headlines of more shootings, of migrant death tolls, of mass incarceration and environmental degradation! Now may not be the right time given that it's the end of summer and some of you may be looking for something to help you gird your loins for the September slam, for a new year of school or programming! Now may not be the right time for those of you are going through a break up or who may be longing to find a partner. Ray Charles would sing the “night time is the right time” for the topic our biblical Song raises. Maybe anytime is a better time than a Sunday morning in church to talk about s.e.x., but therein lies part of the problem we need to address. So, right or wrong, ready for not, now is the time!

To begin, I need to give you a further sample of the Song of Songs so you can see why this sermon is about more than mere emotional love. I read on because I want you to have a clearer and less ‘adulterated’ perspective of what this passage is all about. In the Song, we meet an unmarried couple, a Shulamite woman and her lover, who share in the most intimate and playful and lovely of conversations about their love and longing for each other. Notably for the Bible, she speaks first and has most of the lines. In addition to what Meredith just read, she says: “I was asleep but my heart stayed awake. Listen! My lover knocking.” He says “Open, my sister, my friend, my dove, my perfect one! My hair is wet, drenched with the dew of the night.” And she says, “But I have taken off my clothes, how can I dress again? I have bathed my feet. Must I dirty them? My love reached in for the latch, and my heart beat wild. I rose to open to my love, my fingers wet with myrrh, sweet flowing myrrh on the door bolt. . . . His arm a golden scepter with gems of Topaz, his loins the ivory of thrones inlaid with sapphire, his thighs like marble pillars on pedestals of gold. Tall as Mount Lebanon, a man like cedar! His mouth is sweet wine. He is all delight. This is my beloved and this is my friend….” And he says, “The gold of your thigh shaped by a master craftsman. Your navel is the moon’s bright drinking cup. May it brim with wine! Your belly is a mound of wheat edged with lilies. Your breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” And the Song plays on.

The Song of Solomon, friends! The Canticle of Canticles! The ‘holy of holies’ of Biblical literature as the great ancient Rabbie Akiva once called it. I would think I was being brave to speak such lines in church were it not from the Bible itself. Pretty racy stuff don’t you think, and from the Bible no less? Can you believe it?

For many this text may be unfamiliar. Preachers have skirted preaching it. Most Sunday School teachers wouldn’t dream of teaching it. The only way some of us have had any exposure from hearing a few of the decidedly less erotic passages at a wedding. A little background may help orient us.

First, where did this text come from? How did this ancient ‘erotica’ make it into the holy writ of our Bible? Though the book is attributed to King Solomon, he in all likelihood had little if anything to do with its writing. In fact, the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, as it’s variously called, is a collection of ancient near eastern love poems that are strewn together by a later author. Interestingly, this and the Book Of Esther are the only two Old Testament books that make no mention God. This does not mean God has nothing to do with it. At the time when the books of the Bible were compiled the Song was allegorized and so elevated as pure symbol for the deep love between God and humanity. Rabbinic scholars concluded that the human love depicted in the Song is an allegory for the love and longing shared between God and Israel. The Church fathers, Origen in particular, understood it as an allegory for the deeply committed relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church. Still others would say that the Song is intended to depict the loving relationship that exists between God and the individual soul.

The Song itself seems to say “not so fast!” While these allegorical interpretations are compelling for some, and may lend themselves to more mystical and devotional readings, even some more conservative Biblical scholars have come to admit that the most responsible way to read this text is literally. The Song of Songs is not about the love between God and humanity! It is not the agape kind of Christian love we usually talk about in church! It is not about that divine love at all! It is about eros though. It is about that deeply human, romantic kind of love –that youthful, passionate, devoted, radiant, sensual and sexual love between two human beings -- a love that is ‘hungry as the sea.’ There’s no getting around it. To talk about the Song of Songs is to talk about love and sex, simple as that.

But…not so simple, right? The explicit language and bodily imagery of the Song of Songs, no matter how you read it, forces us to ask a very difficult question, namely, “why is it so difficult for us to talk about sex in church?” This is starting to change, thankfully, after centuries of misguided messages about the original so-called ‘guilty pleasure.’ But if you felt yourself blushing or even squirming a bit in the pews as I was reading a moment ago, you can, in large part, thank the church for whatever awkward dis-ease or discomfort. Our shame around the topic of sex is rooted in a deeply embedded cultural and religious notion that most things sexual are sinful. As Peter Gomes once noted, ever since St. Augustine read Genesis and “transformed its meaning from a story of creation and disobedience to a tale of the discovery of sexual shame,” we have tended to make sex and not disobedience the original sin. And so we have inherited over the centuries a deeply rooted sense of shame and embarrassment about sex and about our bodies in general. Gomes writes convincingly about Augustine and what he calls the “invention of shame” even as he quotes another scholar who summarized this once developing theology, “The body was no more than a flawed vessel for the mind and spirit, and it was now up to the Church to propagate Christian morality in these terms.” The body, a flawed vessel? Who among us hasn’t at some point in our lives experienced (or perhaps even inflicted) the psychic sting of this warped ideology! It is still in so much of the air we breathe that we may barely notice it but its nothing less than toxic when it comes to our relationship with our own bodies or those of others -- the bodies of every gender, the bodies of white, brown and black lives, the bodies of adults and children. Tragically, and ironically enough given a ton of teaching about “incarnation” and the body and flesh and blood of Christ, church cultures all around the world became disembodied, even to the point of embracing such practices as castration and genital mutilation, all in the name of God. As a result of centuries of negative associations with some of our most beautiful and powerful and passion-filled urges, church talk has been all about the head and heart, all from here (heart) or here (head) on up. Fortunately, modern psychology, let alone our own bodies and stories, have taught us the dangers of such repression. And yet, rather than articulating an alternative sexual ethic, a model of a healthy relationship with our bodies and those of others, the church remains largely silent on these matters outside of the occasional condemning word or sermon.

Don’t get me wrong. We can and should decry our popular culture for making sex a commodity, the sex that sells -- what we see on billboards, in magazines, in movies, in newscasts of sex-laden court cases and Independent Counsel reports. We must decry the multi-billion dollar industry of sex trafficking and decry adulterous websites like Ashley Madison with its 38 million “discrete” subscribers. We are by all means called to express righteous indignation and condemnation wherever sexual violence occurs, wherever people, most often women and children, are subjugated and objectified by the eyes of a patriarchal culture, and wherever there is sexual abuse and the kind of abuse that occurs to each of our psyches when and wherever we encounter a sex that sells or exploits. In so doing, we are fulfilling the commandment to love and respect the dignity of children and adults of every gender and sexual orientation. In cases where lgbt people are committing suicide or being murdered – did you know there have been 20 murders of transgender persons of color so far this year(!) -- its our mission of justice to cry out against the deep-seated fears and deeply misguided hetero-normative and cis-normative values that lead to such tragedies. And with all of this, we must own that we still have our work to do in countering the church’s ongoing propagation of that body-as-flawed-vessel theology. And yet, condemnation, no matter how righteous, cannot be our only go-to! Condemnation alone may only serve to underscore the church’s shaming ways when it comes to sex. We need other more constructive tools as well if we want to cultivate, nourish, and model healthy and non-abusive models of human sexuality and relationship. So what, besides a voice of condemnation, can and should the church add to contemporary conversation about human sexuality? What might a constructive Christian sexual ethics, beyond condemnation, look like?

Of course, some will cry out that it’s all about a “return to family values”! The institution of marriage, narrowly defined between a man and woman, is and has always been the church’s answer when it comes to healthy ways of celebrating human sexuality. Marriage will keep sex and all its pleasure in the private domain of a faithful relationship between a husband and a wife, right where it belongs, right? Marriage will also pave the way for a procreative sexual relationship, better still, right? Ah, but the Song of Songs says again, ‘not so fast.’ If we are to take seriously the message of the Song, a biblical sexual ethics, rooted in the Bible itself, need not be limited to marital relations, nor even procreation! Oh there is love, to be sure!!! A love so beautiful and spiritual and mutual and true that many married couples would have difficulty achieving it. Marcia Falk writes of the Song, “Women speak as assertively as men, initiating action at least as often.” Remember who has most of the lines. She also writes that “men are free to be gentle and vulnerable and even coy.” Remember him standing playfully behind the wall, gazing in through the lattice? He knocks at the door and utters forth the most delicate of compliments. She writes that “men and women are mutually praised for their sensual appeal and beauty. . . . Remarkably, the Song seems to describe a nonsexist world, and thus it can act for us as an antidote to some of the themes of biblical patriarchy.” What's more, gay scholar and theologian and former college professor of mine, Gary Comstock writes that “in the Song of Songs, male dominance, female subordination, and stereotyping of either gender is absent. ‘Lover’ and ‘friend’ are synonymous; yearnings are not kept secret, all parts of the body are celebrated; woman is neither called wife nor required to bear children; procreation is not mentioned.” He goes onto say that, “Although the Song is thoroughly heterosexual and leaves me still without any direct or explicit acknowledgment of my own sexuality, it seems the only part of the Bible with which we can form an alliance for constructing a sexual ethics based on the interest and needs of people for body pleasure.”

Bam! Now we’re getting somewhere! A Christian sexual ethic based upon holy scripture itself is one of mutual respect and love – a respect that is granted equally to each partner, a love that is mutually shared between human beings, made manifest in the very giving and receiving of the sweetest of pleasures. The Song of Songs gives us a model by which to not only judge sexual practices in our larger culture be they right or wrong, but more importantly a model by which we can celebrate and sing from our own bodies’ natural pleasures!

A quick story before I close, and a hopeful sign of progress perhaps, even when it comes to the church’s role in this conversation. Last year, First Church participated for the first time in sharing a sexuality curriculum with our 7th graders. It’s called “Our Whole Lives.” It was conceived by and produced by sexual health experts and educators from Unitarian and UCC churches. It runs the spectrum of ages from kids to adults. For this group, it meant 27 Sunday evening sessions of learning all about bodies and sex and right relationships, and thank God, thank God, my own 7th grade daughter Nellie was part of just about every one of them. Just check out this list of assumptions that the course is based on:

All persons are sexual.
Sexuality is a good part of the human experience.
Sexuality includes much more than sexual behavior.
Human beings are sexual from the time they are born until they die.
It is natural to express sexual feelings in a variety of ways.
People engage in healthy sexual behavior for a variety of reasons including to express caring and love, to experience intimacy and connection with another, to share pleasure, to bring new life into the world, and to experience fun and  relaxation.
Sexuality in our society is damaged by violence, exploitation, alienation, dishonesty, abuse of power, and the treatment of persons as objects.

Amen? At the parent orientation last year at this time, I read this list along with a list of core values that included self worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusion. You can’t imagine my relief! 27 sessions based on that foundation! Now we’re really talking!

Friends, in relieving us of the burden of shame so often associated with our sexuality, classes like “Our Whole Lives” and biblical texts like the Song of Songs give us permission to talk about sex, with our lovers and friends, to do so freely and even playfully! No doubt there were some hilarious stories that came home from Nellie’s OWL classes but I was also thrilled that she found a place and confidence to ask her questions and to develop her own stance and core values on these often confusing issues. Human sexuality need not be such a private or discreet or underground affair. We can and should celebrate and sing the Song of Songs, and the Song of our own sexuality in responsible and appropriate ways. And, we can and should sing these Songs to God no less. In the end, the Song of Songs- the superior among all love songs- in all its stirring sensuality invites us to sing our praises for the gift of human love, for bodily pleasures so beautifully and wonderfully shared, to send praise to God, the creator of human bodies and beings.

Looking through the lattice, may we blush no more. The time of singing has come. Amen.

Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, p. 169 (quoting Reay Tannahill “Sex in History’)

Marcia Falk, “Song of Songs” in Harper’s Bible Commentary (Harper and Row, Publishers: San Fransisco, 1988), p. 525-528.

Gary Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology, (Pilgrim Press: Ohio, 1993), p. 44-46.

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