September 2, 2018
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Song of Songs 2:8-13
The focus for this morning’s sermon is taken from our first reading: The Song of Solomon, otherwise known as The Song of Songs. As near as I can tell, this is one of the only – maybe even the only - Sunday within the three year lectionary which includes this particular book in the Bible, so it seems to me that it deserves some specific attention.
This beautiful book of poetry is about the longing of love and the joy of physical delight. It is a collection of love songs. It serves as a continuous story of a woman (the beloved) and a man (the lover) who adore one another and tell each other of their love.
So, why is it included in the Judaeo Christian Book of Scriptures? Well, within the Jewish tradition it was not included in their scriptures until the year 70 AD. Even then, some rabbis felt it was unsuitable because it doesn’t seem particularly, or explicitly interested in Law, or Covenant, or Yahweh the God of Israel, and its images are somewhat sexy. But the main argument for including it in the Bible is that it portrays – signifies - God’s love for God’s people. It suggests that the love between two people is seen as a picture – an outward manifestation - of the marriage covenant between God and Israel.
Christians, too, have seen the Song as a beautiful image which conveys the love between Christ and his church. And most certainly, the Song of Songs is seen as a collection of poems in praise of the physical expression of love. They remind us that sex is God’s gift for creation and recreation, the marriage covenant and mutual joy, adoration and respect.
The context in which these poems were written is important. It initially was to speak to a society where sex has been abused and degraded. The Israelites are constantly tempted by the permissive and promiscuous sex which other nations so clearly seem to enjoy. This series of poems make it clear that love is good; that true and genuine love is “God’s own holy flame within humankind.” The desire and pleasure of physical touch are God’s gift. Throughout this Book of Poems the author relentlessly portrays a love which flourishes on commitment (commitment that is ordained by God), a sharing of souls and mutual delight.
As I was spending time with this morning’s 1st reading, it became clear to me that it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how it may speak to this culture in which we live today. And this led me to return to an article entitled: ‘What I Learned from Sex and the City: Seeking a spirituality of the body.” (I must confess: Most of what I seem to know…) This article offers a kind of spiritual/theological reflection on that hugely popular HBO series, which then was made into – I think - three movies. The author is challenging the way in which our culture today degrades and abuses matters pertaining to the body, and in so doing she refers to the four main characters – four women - who personify this cultural norm. The episodes involved intricately woven scenarios regarding their love interests and sexual exploits; their ongoing experiences of humiliation, sexually transmitted diseases, all of which is an expression of & motivation for a deep and profound sense of loneliness. These women were constantly immersed in a series of dilemmas: the fear of commitment versus a ticking biological clock; the difference between being cherished and being consumed; the tension between self indulgent pleasure and self sacrifice. ‘Love’ for these women was radically different than the brand of love described in the Song of Songs.
Through the lives of these women the audience was faced with inevitable questions that spring from the mysteries of love. Like: is it really true that you’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you? And – really – is it possible to find true – eternal – happiness and joy in a culture of such self indulgent, pleasure seeking ways?
So, in search of answers to all this, these four women change sexual partners more often than we would care to imagine, often, sadly in search of emotional and economic security – and to no one’s surprise – finding themselves disappointed over and over again. You’ve perhaps seen that bumper sticker which says, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Well, when the going got tough for these four women, and more often than not, it did, they went shopping. Apparently their commitment to self indulgent consumerism is of legendary proportions. Expensive clothes became a habitual attempt to sooth the pain of rejection and disappointment, and to fill the void that their exploits were not able to satisfy. Because this – too – was unsuccessful in satisfying the deep sense of longing within. And, eventually, as is true in real life, these women had to deal with aging, babies that cannot be postponed any longer, illness, and death.
Indeed, the characters had to face the questions and hard core realities that are inevitable with the human condition. This article asks the question, “So why did the writers use the vehicle of sex as the place to work out these dilemmas? Why is it sex and the city instead of sex in the city?” And it suggests that the reason involves more than just our contemporary fixation on all things erotic. The author here refers to Jane Jacobs, author of ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities who writes, “the point of cities is the multiplicity of choice.” It is this multiplicity of choices that drives a consumer society. So, in this culture, sex becomes one of the commodities to be consumed. In the marketplace, everything is negotiated and evaluated. Everything has a price. Nothing is free. The trick is to negotiate so that you will get more than you give.
And furthermore, “Along with being a marketplace, the city is also a symbol of the human community. In the city, we come together for a common purpose and meet our relational needs. Through our work and relationships, we create culture and express our Image of God. The bonds in the human city are based on bodily relationships; we are physically present with each other and intimately connected. Conceived through the union of a community, each life is intricately woven into other lives from generation to generation. Sex in the City’s writers understood that the body places us in relationship and creates deep social meaning.”
Because when we think about the body, what is more encompassing than sexuality? While our society (as expressed in those four famous characters) reduces the body to matters primarily erotic and something to be used as a means to an end, our sexuality is much, much more; it is a compelling desire to give ourselves fully to another. The author of this article makes the point that we bring our sexuality to everything we do. Because sexuality is always socially and spiritually situated, the need for belonging, affirmation, and meaning that is not satisfied in a community will readily be expressed through a kind of malnourished sexual desire.
So it could be said that a culture such as the one depicted in ‘Sex and the City’ exists – occurs – as a result of loneliness, isolation, and low self esteem, and it also perpetuates it. And furthermore, according to the author, “There is another truth: Regardless of how much we try to commodify the body, we don’t (we can’t) experience bodies as mere objects. With its pain and pleasure, the body is the place where the most profound human desire is exposed – the desire to be fully known, yet fully loved. Through hookups and breakups, Sex and the City explores this fundamental experience.”
I think the clearest personification of this reality is found in Marilyn Munroe. Society tried to commodify her body, but we must never forget, each photo that depicts her beauty – photos sold and published for enormous amounts of money – simply mask (mostly unsuccessfully) the pain/brokenness/loneliness and deep and profound sadness that her beautiful body had absorbed and knew only too well.
But here’s the thing. All the vulnerability, pain, longing, desire that our bodies will ever know, all this presents the need – the longing - for a God who has taken on flesh and therefore knows our struggles – a God who, through Jesus, has given himself fully to the world. This God has come to us in Jesus and entered into the broken human community to dwell in the messiness of our lives. By taking on flesh, living and dying along with us, God identifies with our dilemmas and satisfies our longing. Any time we experience a true expression of human love, the source of that love is . . . can only be . . . the God who longs for us to know the joy of that love.
Through Jesus, we are fully known, yet also fully loved. And this is the love that is identified in the Song of Songs. “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. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘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 signing 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.”
As I reflect on this passage within the context of this article on Sex and the City, I find myself with three primary thoughts.
First, this passage - and this whole book of songs - is a profound reminder of how passionate our God is – and how passionately this God (through Christ) loves us. God gifts us with passions, and despite the fact that we may misuse them or confuse them they are indeed gifts from the One who is so passionate about each of us. No matter how far we may stray into a culture that is self indulgent God remains committed and passionate toward us. As we stray, this passionate God – made known in Jesus – stands behind the walls we build, looking through the lattice, and speaks, and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”
Second, we are reminded about the fact that God is an old-fashioned romantic. As was made clear in Sex and the City, in our culture, when folks connect with each other in books/movies/TV, it’s almost an instantaneous move from ‘hello’ to physical intimacy. But remember those romantic movies from the 40’s and 50’s, where romance took time, where there was a gradual unfolding of the loving relationship – with flowers and chocolates and candle-light dinners; there was conversation and communication and connection. When we gather together to share in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we have a visible/tangible reminder of the One who is made present to us through this candle-lit meal; the One who longs for solid, committed, long-lasting relationships with us.
Finally, the Song of Songs reminds us of how lovesick our God is. When we are apart, God yearns for us; when temptation pulls us into the seeking of new self indulgent thrills, God knocks on our door and says, “Arise, come away with me. Here you will find true love, enduring love, hopeful love.” What an extraordinary gift to be loved so deeply; so fully: Everyone is somebody, because God – the source of all life – loves us so completely.