September 2, 2018

Pentecost 15   September 2, 2018(Ps. 148, James 1:17-27)

Song of Songs 8:6-7, 2:8-13    Sing the Song

**************************************************************

[After Song of Songs 8:6-7]

The Song of Songs has been called the least biblical book of the bible. Mostly because God, Israel, and prayer are never mentioned, at least not directly – while human romantic love is celebrated exuberantly in poetic, suggestive language that can still make for a little blushing…

When the Writings, the last section of the Hebrew bible, were being edited into their present final form almost two thousand years ago, the Rabbis debated whether the Song of Songs should even be included… Till Rabbi Akiva declared: “All the world is not worth the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies!

The voice of  revered and highly respected Rabbi Akiva prevailed. Ever since, Jewish teachers, building on the words of the prophets (especially Isaiah and Hosea) who referred to Israel as God’s beloved bride, have interpreted Song of Songs as a sanctified duet sung by God and Israel. Christians, building on Jewish tradition as well as New Testament writings, especially Ephesians and Revelation, where the church is called “the bride of Christ” – interpreted the Song of Songs as a hymn of love between Christ and the church.

Our spiritual ancestors valued the Song of Songs – so highly that more bible commentaries were written about the Song than any other book of the bible except for Genesis and the Psalms. Christian monastics especially loved it – Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order, wrote 86 sermons based on just the first two chapters of the Song…

Today, however, many contemporary bible scholars interpret the Song of Solomon as primarily love poetry describing an ideal human marriage….(Long story short–)  My favorite commentary, by Ellen Davis, interprets the Song as both/and – beautiful love poetry celebrating the joys and pleasures of human love, modeling faithfulness in marriage – and – most of all, a love song between God and God’s people. (The teachers and saints of old were right about that…So… )

Listen! – for the voice of the Beloved.

[Read Song of Songs 2:8-13]

Way back in the beginning, in our primal falling away from God and in the resulting exile from the garden, a three-way tragedy unfolds. First, men and women created equal in the image and likeness of God in the beginning, fall into a pattern of blaming and hurting each other – man now dominating woman, though created to be equal partners.

Secondly, now the earth – created as a beautiful garden where people live in harmony with nature… is now infested with weeds and thorns… And pleasant gardening becomes sweat-of-the-brow painful labor.

Third, most seriously – people who have been speaking face-to-face on a regular basis with God are now estranged from God – banished from the garden, our relationship badly broken… terribly bent and damaged…

Yet – now, in the Song of Songs, without explanation – deep, loving equality between woman and man is restored. The woman’s voice actually sings lead a little more often than the man, as if to make up for being silenced too long…(The whole Song is sung in female and male parts, which some translations mark in the text. There’s also an occasional chorus of women’s voices, companions of the woman, chiming in, now and then, when the woman speaks.) And… in some passages we really can’t be sure who’s voice we’re hearing – as (perhaps) lovers speak with one voice together…

And as if all-in-the-same-moment, deep harmony is restored also between nature and humankind, as the Song’s luxuriant nature-imagery calls to mind the Garden of Eden… and…

Finally, though God is not directly named in the Song, its flowing poetic imagery throughout suggests the wondrous gracious presence of God… in the voice of the lovers – in the voice of nature – in right relationship wondrously restored – as lovers sing of passionate faithful love for one another, using words and phrases that recall the words of scripture. Two voices in intimate harmony, each singing the praises of the other… Singing to each other –

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. It’s flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame (of fiery love). Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it… If one were to offer all the wealth there is for love – the offer would be utterly scorned.”

Again the Song of Songs is full of references, both subtle and obvious – to verses of scripture – that use these same words to describe Jerusalem, the temple, Mt. Zion, and (even) God…The effect is all the more stunning because the Song also freely quotes and paraphrases pagan top forty love songs of the day…

And I imagine the lovers singing to each other–

All of me, why not take all of me? Can’t you see I’m no good without you…

Take my lips I want to lose them. Take my arms I’ll never use them…

You took the part that once was my heart, so why not take all of me?” – Or –

“The very thought of you, and I forget to do…

the little ordinary things that everyone ought to do –

I see your face in every flower, your eyes in stars above…

It’s just the thought of you, the very thought of you, my love…”

Theologically, as Ellen Davis points out, the Song is breath-takingly daring – as, with repeated hearing we come to recognize – the Song is actually about nothing less than restoration of God’s people to the garden of Eden and primal grace.

“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 singing has come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land…”

The long, long winter of our exile from the garden is past… It’s Springtime again in Eden. Earth blossoms, blooms, celebrates love’s harvest… God and God’s people join together celebrating healing of the earth and all nature – celebrating marriage and all human life – celebrating most of all God and God’s people, together in love again – as if for the first time…

***

Yet, as seems to be the case, virtually always, with love songs, no matter how beautiful…We can’t avoid the sense of deep yearning…and incomplete blessing…

As we overhear… the lovers speaking in lovers language, passionate yet discrete… The specifics of their love life ever cloaked in mystery… We hear hints of separations…glimpse them seeking for each other… see lovers reunited…only to be separated yet again…

The Song is intensely intimately personal for these lovers – yet at the same time,  very public… as they declare their love again and again… The chorus of her companions asking the woman again and yet again – Are you really sure? How do you know? Is your love really real…?

Perhaps we notice similarities with our own lives.

Nothing quite compares with sweep-you-off-your-feet young love…

But everyone who’s been in love knows… love that soars up into the starry heavens… eventually must come down to earth…

Usually the rush of romance has a shelf-life of a year or two… Before we settle down into every-day-love… Which, to be sure, can still be awesomely amazing… But it’s a different kind of love, now, a few years into marriage. We still say “Honey you look awesome” and “My heart leaps for joy when I see you” after we’ve been apart. But isn’t it funny… how often now our late-night conversations can be about – “Is it really necessary to throw dirty socks there, instead of where they should be?” (Or–)  “Do you really have to squish the toothpaste tube that way – instead of rolling it up properly from the bottom?”

Our spiritual life can be like this too. We’re still in love with God… but stuff keeps happening… The love we have for God is still real… But we’re also much more aware now, of things in our relationship with God that are not so perfect… Big and little things… that can feel so bothersome or bewildering… Reading the Song of Songs now can be more challenging…

But… Now and then we meet – or remember – one of those fortunate people or couples who’s love never seems to grow old – who remind us of how we’d like our relationship to be… with our partner… Our God…

I’ve been remembering a funeral for one of the saints up in North Hero, Vermont… Everyone remembered Alice and her husband (who died a few years earlier) standing together every night, well into their nineties, looking across the lake, watching the sunset – holding hands.

Holding hands at midnight beneath the starry sky…

Nice work if you can get it – and you can get it if you try…”

Finding the perfect relationship is seldom easy…

But as we read on in the Song of Songs, we find deep assurance…

God is still always willing – to hold our hand – and go for it with us.

God, the lover of our soul, still woos us passionately –

Still yearning, always, for intimate relationship with us…

God, our God, still calls to us –

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away….”

How very good it is – when we say –

Thank you, God! Let’s go!  Amen.