Sunday, July 12, 2015

“Arise, my love, and come away.”

Song of Songs 2: 8-17
Sunday, July 5, 2015  
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

When I’ve worshiped in Jewish congregations, there is a particular song that comes near the beginning of the service that I always enjoy. It’s called Lecha Dodi. Most congregations I’ve been in sing it with an upbeat tune and everyone is smiling and enjoying the moment. There are usually lots of verses….like 8-10, and a chorus that repeats over and over again, so even I can get the hang of the Hebrew for the chorus.

The translation of the chorus is, “Come, my beloved, to meet the Bride, and let us greet the presence of Shabbat.” It is the song that is sung to mark the beginning of Sabbath each week.

Sabbath – that great jewel of creation, that palace in time – Shabbat is welcomed each week as a Bride by Jews around the world. It is a day of rest. A day to put aside work and wordly concerns. A day to love and be loved by God, the Holy One of Israel.

There is an ancient Jewish midrash that explains how the Sabbath came to be called the Bride of Israel. It is said that when God created the world, each day had a partner. Monday had Tuesday, Wednesday had Thursday and so on. Only the seventh day, the Sabbath, was left without a partner. The Sabbath complained to God and Yahweh told the Sabbath Day that Israel would be its partner. [1]

The words, “Come, my beloved” in Lecha Dodi come from the seventh chapter of the Song of Songs. You have probably also heard the book called the Song of Solomon, but the actual Hebrew title in the first verse of the book is best translated, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.”

In addition to being remembering it each Friday when greeting the Sabbath, Jews around the world read the entire Song of Songs each year at Passover after the Passover meal. They read it to remember God’s great love for the people of Israel. Rabbi Akiva, one of the most revered sages in the Jewish tradition, had a high regard for the Song of Songs. He said, “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”[2]

Others through the centuries have disagreed with Rabbi Akiva. People from all walks of life – scholars, rabbis, pastors, laypeople – simply do not know what to do with the Song of Songs. After all, taken at face value, it’s erotic poetry. There’s no way around that reality. God is not mentioned once in the Song of Songs (making this book one of two in the Bible where God is not mentioned….the Book of Esther is the other, and our ancestors were so uncomfortable with the omission that they tried to insert God at a later date.)

There was a fair amount of debate over whether such a book should even be included in the canon. The Church today seems to have mostly moved past debate in favor of simply ignoring the book. I’ve never preached a sermon on it. I’m guessing most of you have never heard a sermon on it. It only shows up once in the entire three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary and the newer Narrative Lectionary, created just five years ago, leaves it out entirely.

If you’ve ever heard it read in a church, it was probably at a wedding. I can remember sneaking peeks at it as a teenager when I was bored during worship. I giggled over the entertaining and  imagery. I grew up watching MTV and reading Cosmo. I was no stranger to explicit material, but to see it in the Bible? That was too much. I laughed at it and put it aside.

For centuries, though, the Song was revered as one of the most beloved books in the Bible.

Harvard scholar, Stephanie Paulsell, who was here in Manhattan a few months ago as Ecumenical Campus Ministry’s Theologian-in-Residence reminds us that, in fact, medieval Christians commented on the Song more than any other book.

Paulsell describes how medieval Christians may have thought of the Song, as “a bottomless pool of meaning one could swim in one’s whole life long and never sound the bottom. It was a garden in which one might encounter God walking in the cool of day. For these readers, the Song of Songs was a devotional text surpassing all others.”[3]

I guess the author wasn’t kidding when they called it the Song of Songs. Speaking of the author, we don’t know who wrote it. It’s unclear why the connection to Solomon is stated in the first verse, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” but scholars agree it was almost certainly not written by Solomon.

More than likely, many authors wrote the book. It is a collection of poems, gathered together by an editor, who added the title. The tie to Solomon may be because of his reputation as a prolific lover (though the book actually pokes fun at Solomon’s promiscuity) or simply a nod to the King’s love of writing. He was rumored to have written thousands of poems.

No matter how you look at it, saying that the book is associated with King Solomon is certainly a way to give it some credibility and get it noticed. 

One medieval Jewish Rabbi, Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona saw the Solomon connection a different way. Rabbi Ezra believed the name “Solomon” was synonymous with God and believed the Song was the best of all Songs because God sings it each and every day to humanity.[4]

I love that image of God singing a love song to us each day. The Song has long been interpreted as allegorical. Jews and Christians alike have tried to make a book with no God-talk more explicitly theological by interpreting it as a story about God’s love for humanity. It’s not just about what we see on the surface – a beautiful love poem about the escapades of two young lovers – but it is also about the deep desire God and humanity have for one another.

Pre-modern people were, by and large, much more comfortable with multiple readings of the text than modern people were. I wonder if, in our post-modern age, we are coming back around to a place where layered interpretations add richness, rather than confusion?

I know that, for me, the layers upon layers of interpretation available in this one book speaks volumes about the complexity of our relationship with Scripture and the vast unknowable nature of God.

One small example of the allegorical interpretations that have flourished over the centuries: Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila both interpreted the opening lines, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” as the intense desire humanity has for the incarnation of God in Jesus. As Paulsell puts it, “the pressing of divinity into human flesh.”[5] By the way, Bernard of Clairvaux really loved this book. He wrote 82 sermons on it in the 12th century. Eighty-two! And he never even got past the second chapter. So if you think the five sermons we’re doing here are too many, just remember Bernard.

A quick preview of the weeks ahead before we wrap up today’s introduction.

Next week we’ll be exploring one of my favorite things about this book: the surprising nature of the relationship between the man and woman in the Song. The woman speaks about two-thirds of the text. She is in the driver’s seat. She is proud of her body, exhibits ownership over her own self, and is supremely confident. The relationship between the two is one of respect and mutuality. The overall sexual ethic of the Song is surprisingly progressive on many levels (which may be part of the reason Christians today rarely read it). I should probably mention that next week is likely to be the sermon that deals most explicitly with human sexuality. We might be looking at a sermon that’s rated PG-13 instead of PG.

For week three, we’ll be taking a look at the relationship of the lovers to their natural surroundings. Many scenes in the Song take place in a lush setting, outdoors. The language is rooted in earthy images. In the pages of this book, we find a vision of harmony and partnership between humanity and the Earth. It is for this reason that the Song is often said to un-do the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible.[6] This is a book where there is no shame in nakedness, no shame in knowledge, and a strong connection between the humans and the Garden they inhabit.

Week four will take us through some of the more unsettling portions of the text. There are a couple of passages where the woman is desperately seeking her partner but unable to find him. In these times of absence, we are reminded that none of us can fully know even those closest to us (let alone, God). We will explore the unknowingness of love – the flow of absence and return.

The last week is still taking shape. But I will try to bring us back around, in some way, to the experience of the Song as a book of devotion.  What can we learn about reverence? How do we read ourselves into the text? How can the Song of Songs change our experience of the Holy and of one another?

I am looking forward to going on this journey with you. I encourage you to dust off your Bible at home this week. The entire book is only eight chapters long and can easily be read in one sitting. As we enter the garden of the Song of Songs, let us do so with reverence and thanksgiving for the great gift of love in all its many forms.

[3] Paulsell, Stephanie. Lamentations and The Song of Songs from the Belief commentary series, 171.
[4] Paulsell, 190.
[5] Paulsell, 173.

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