Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Beloved Calls - Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Every generation since the beginning of recorded human history has had its love songs. You might have a favorite and I might have mine. It’s likely that our differences of generation will influence our choices. Our scripture reading this morning is itself a love song, or at least a small portion of one of the great epic love songs ever written.

As I was thinking about this song, a tune from my teen years came to mind. It’s one of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles hits, and I think it fits the moment. The first stanza goes like this: 
You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs

I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you.
Yes, what’s wrong with singing silly love songs? 

There’s another song from those years that also speaks of love, but in a somewhat different way than McCartney’s song. And it goes like this: 
What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some but for everyone

So, as McCartney so profoundly puts it: “Love isn’t silly at all.”  No, everyone needs to experience a bit of love. For as Paul put it: “Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

The Song of Solomon is a love song that became sacred scripture. In many ways it’s a rather erotic poem that allows two people to share their passion for each other. But, because it’s in the Bible it must be more than simply another silly love song. In fact, these words of deep passion carry within them a word of revelation. This is true even though the poet never mentions God. While there’s nothing in this song that is explicitly religious, it is still sacred scripture.

So how should we read it? What message does it carry? How can it convey to us a word from God?

You could take it out of its scriptural context and read it as simply another love song or piece of ancient erotic literature. That’s probably how it was originally written. If we read it in the context of scripture, what we have is a sacred celebration of the power of human sexuality. 

Down through time many interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have taken a more spiritual view of this book. These interpreters may have been trying to avoid dealing with the erotic aspects of the song, but surely there is more to this than simply the desire to avoid talking about sex in church.

Stephanie Paulsell points out that interpreters such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila “recognized their own yearning for God. They heard in the verses of the Song so much that was true about their own search for God’s presence. . . .” She goes on to say that the way in which these interpreters read it wasn’t a “rejection of the erotic quality of the Song, but a recognition of the erotic quality of life with God” [Lamentations and the Song of Songs: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)p. 175]. We might not think of God in that way, but readers of this song have recognized God’s passionate embrace of humanity.

So, on one level it’s completely appropriate for us to read this poem as a poetic conversation between two human beings who are passionately in love with each other. We hear this passion in words that describe a lover “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . like a gazelle or a young stag.” And then we hear him call out to his beloved: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

On the other hand, the great mystics of the past and present have read this poem allegorically and found in it a powerful statement about God’s love for the church. So, when we hear the words, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” it is God who is calling out to us, inviting us to enter into a deep and abiding relationship. This way of thinking about our relationship with God might sound strange to Disciples, since we’ve emphasized the rational side of the faith, but maybe faith involves more than simply the mind.  

The lover tells the beloved that winter is over and spring is at hand. “The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” So, it’s time to leave the house and go off on an adventure.  Yes, it’s time to open the boxes we place ourselves in and embrace the uncertainties that the life in God presents. After all, love is always risky. When we give ourselves fully to another, we risk being hurt. We risk being let down. And yet, this seems to be the kind of relationship God invites us to partake in. Of course, God takes a risk as well in loving us!  If nothing else the cross is a reminder of that risk! 
Now, I’ve been talking about love, but what is love? After all, there’s a difference between saying I love the Giants and the Tigers, and saying I love Cheryl! The ancient Greeks had several words that we translate as love, the most prominent being eros and agape. While the Song of Solomon was written in Hebrew, when it was translated into Greek the translators used the word agape, which we think of in terms of unconditional love. But, when we read the text, it seems as if the better word would have been eros. It’s just a guess, but I think that the translators might have been a bit skittish about using the word eros in a text like this.  

While the translators used agape, I think eros might be the better word. In thinking about the nature of love I often turn to theologian Tom Oord for guidance. He writes about the different forms of love in Scripture and in human experience. When it comes to defining the word eros, Tom suggests that it involves “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being by affirming and/or seeking to enhance value.” The key phrase is “enhance value,” which Tom suggests means that eros “affirms what is good, beautiful, and valuable, and seeks to enhance it.” [The Nature of Love: A Theologyp. 83.] 

So when the lover calls for the one he loves to come away with him, he does so because he sees something of value in the beloved. He desires to experience her company. He enjoys spending time with her. There’s no other place he’d rather be than in her arms. When we take this vision into the spiritual realm, Tom writes: “Just as God loves creation because of its value, so we ought to love others and ourselves because of the value God gives. Affirming God-given value may be one of the most important things those with a poor sense of self-worth needs” (Oord, p. 84).

When God invites us to “come away” it is because God has found value in us. God desires to be in relationship with us. If this is true, then we can affirm God’s love  by loving ourselves and loving our neighbor. We express our love for God by affirming the beauty and value that belongs to the whole of God’s creation, and by joining God in enhancing the value that is God’s creation – and doing it with passion and not just as duty!

It is as St. Teresa of Avila suggests in her meditation on the Song of Songs:
Oh, my Lord, my mercy, and my Good! And what greater good could I want in this life than to be so close to You, that there be no division between You and me: With this companionship, what can be difficult? What can one not undertake for You, being so closely joined? [Tessa Bielecki, Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings (The Crossroad Spiritual Legacy Series)p. 156.]
We come today to worship the God who calls out to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Are you ready to embrace the passion of God and experience the fullness that is God’s presence?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 30, 2015
Pentecost 14B

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