A sermon preached at First Community Church, United Methodist,
February 15, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk
Song of Songs 2:8-13
When Pastor Tony asked me to preach on this date, I immediately decided that I would honor Valentine’s Day, and preach on love. But I understand that for some of us, Valentine’s Day might not be a particularly happy day. In fact, I spent most of my teenage years, and much of my adult life, dreading Valentine’s Day. My mantra of those years was like the old J. Geils song: “I’ve had the blues, the reds and the pinks; one thing for sure: love stinks.” So for those of you who would rather shout love stinks, I want to tell you that I understand; I only hope that my words will remind you of a good memory of a past love, or will give you hope for a love that you have yet to discover.
As I begin, I invite you all to remember three words: good, mutual, divine.
This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Song of Songs, a book of the Bible that is comprised of 31 love poems. The words that Sarah read today come from a relatively new translation from the Hebrew by Marcia Falk, a Jewish woman, and I recommend it to you highly. This is poem # 9 out of the 31, and is perhaps the best known and loved of all of them. It sets the tone for the entire song cycle: it celebrates new, and physical, love. Spring fever. The birds are back; the sap is rising; and young men’s and women’s thoughts turn to love....maybe even men and women who are not so young.
And this is in the Bible! I think there are two common misconceptions about the Bible in our general culture: that the Bible is a G-rated book, and that Bible speaks with a clear and consistent voice on any given topic.
Neither of these is really true. This book is not G-rated. The Song of Songs gives us one of the more pleasant examples of a Biblical text that, if you were to make it into a movie, would be at least PG-13, and, depending on how far you want to take your imagination, could get an NC-17 rating. This particular book is definitely for grown-ups.
The Song of Songs also demonstrates that the various books of the Bible do not always give the same point of view on a given topic. When it comes to matters of love and loving relationships, contrary to what some other books of the Bible seem to say, the Song of Songs tells us that romantic love is good, mutual, and divine.
Romantic love, physical desire, is a good thing! Christianity is notorious for teaching just the opposite. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a church where it was considered more holy to be celibate, than to be in relationship. In part, this comes from a comment that St. Paul made in his first letter to the Corinthians: that it is not a sin to marry, but it is better to stay single. What we often forget, though, is that Paul wrote that letter during the period of his life when he believed that Jesus would come again really soon. So he encouraged the churches to put their energy into getting ready for the end of life as they knew it, rather than to start any long projects, such as families. Well, that was 2,000 years ago. It looks as though we could be here for the long haul, and so it makes sense to love and form relationships.
Some of us have been taught that there are three words in classical Greek for love: philia, eros, and agape, and that agape is the best of these because it is a Platonic, disinterested, self-sacrificing love. Professor Theodore Jennings, of the University of Chicago, has done some research on this topic and has found that eros and agape actually mean the same thing -- the difference is one of dialect and not of meaning. So romantic, erotic love, and and the love that we all are to have for each other, are not so separate after all. Love is a good thing.
Romantic love is meant to be a mutual thing. This is in contrast to the picture that we get from some of the other texts in the Bible. In the Book of Leviticus, for example, the book of laws, we find that if a man forcibly violates another man, it is a capital offense; however, if a man forcibly violates an unmarried woman, he simply has to buy her from her father. In many of the Old Testament stories, women are property. Today, we find these notions disgusting -- abominable -- especially those of us who are women. In the Song of Songs, however, we don’t get that same sense of one-sided possession. Here, love is a 2-way street. The desire is mutual; the delight when the lover and the beloved come together is mutual; even the initiative in the relationship is mutual, as you can find when you read the entire book. Neither one owns the other, but each one loves and is loved.
Above all, romantic love is divine. The love that we feel for each other is one in nature with the love that God has for us, and that we have for God. Throughout the centuries, the traditional interpretation of the Song of the Songs is that it expresses the longing of the soul for God, and vice versa. If we explore this idea, and meditate on these texts, it implies that God is crazy in love with us -- truly, madly, deeply, head over heels in love. Now if you have ever been in love... you know what that feels like. And that is the way God feels about us. God is madly in love with you. With me. And wants your love, the way that you do when you love another human being.
As it is written towards the end of the Song of Songs, love is “a flash of flame; the very fire of God.” You know, there are some things about God’s love that I could never understand... until I finally experienced my spouse’s love for me. For years, even decades, I had heard about God’s unconditional love for us. And it seemed like a great idea, but I was never really able to believe in it... until I came into relationship with Sharilyn. After a few years of marriage, I slowly realized that her love for me was steadfast, faithful, and unconditional. If I did something that caused her to be angry, if I did something hurtful, it still did not cause her to stop loving me. Understand me: I didn’t get away with it. If I did something stupid or thoughtless, I had to make it right, and that is how we have been able to stay together in love for fifteen years. I have done some things I wish I hadn’t, but Sharilyn has never stopped loving me. And once I really understood and trusted that she would still love me, I understood that that’s how God loves me. How God loves you. Forever and for keeps, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer.
My hope for you, this week, is that you will take some time to read the Song of Songs for yourself, and if possible, read it out love with someone you love. May all of your love lives be good, mutual, and divine. Amen.
(c) 2009 by Joan M. Saniuk. All rights reserved.