Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Knotty/Naughty Bible Story

Song of Songs 8:6-7

Okay, this first bit I’m about to say needs a bit of disclaimer. Remember a few weeks ago when I brought up the three subjects we’re taught to avoid if possible? Sex, religion and politics. Well, ready yourself because if you think the Bible’s biggest scandal is that God gets a bit judgey and condemns whole generations of people now and then in the Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament, I’m about to reveal that the Bible can get much more intense than the fire and brimstone that God occasionally rains down upon various people and their families. And, in my defense, I’m not making any of this up—it’s all there, in our Holy Scriptures. We just have a tendency to ignore it most of the time. So, now you have been warned, here we go.

Stephen and I have done our planning for next year’s programming. One Bible study that we will run is called the Knotty/Naughty Stories of the Bible. The first ‘knotty’ is spelled, KNOTTY, as in the stories that a difficult and challenging—the ones that are hard to hear. They involve killing and mayhem—and woudn’t it, don’t those two often go hand in hand? Anyway, the other ‘naughty’ is the kind of naughty that we don’t often talk about in polite in company. The blushing kind of naughty. The ‘that’s what she said’ kind of naughty. We decided to create this Bible study because in the Bible studies and sessions this past year, I would sometimes refer to certain stories of the Bible that were unfamiliar to those gathered. We got to discussing about how some stories of the Bible just are never read or addressed in the sanctuary on Sundays. They are not included in the Lectionary and so if we only ever followed that three year schedule, you would never know those particular stories.  Unless, of course, you did the unthinkable—that is, read the Bible from cover to cover, word for word, on your own accord.

Now, I already have a good sense of which scriptures we will be looking at next fall for this Bible study—there’s the one in which Lot’s daughters get him drunk and take advantage of him in his altered state. It’s as bad as it sounds. There’s the one in which a father kills his daughter after promising God that if God would only just let him win the battle he was about to wage, then he would make a sacrifice to God. Somehow his daughter back at home gets mixup in the bargain. And then there’s two—not ONE but TWO—different stories of groups of men going to the home of someone hosting a traveller for the night and demanding that the host toss the visitor out so that they might “know” him and, in biblical terms, ‘knowing’ someone is to have carnal knowledge of that person. Instead of being a bad host and tossing out the guest, a woman of the house gets offered to the ravaging group instead. These stories are hard to hear, they are hard to explain and they seem to serve little purpose in furthering God’s love in the world. However, the fact of the matter is that these stories are in the Bible. It is good to acknowledge them now and then because, we have to remember there was a time in which the scriptures were the only written source of moral behaviour with models of how men and women were to behave in the world. And, from the relationships portrayed in the stories we can better understand the context of the societal structures that existed at the times each of the Books of the Bible were written.

The Book that our reading comes from today falls solidly within the blushing naughty category of scripture that the Lectionary has turned a blind eye towards. In fact, the book of the Song of Songs has been banned reading, over many centuries, by various church leaders. Popes, pastors, theologians have not known what to do with this notorious Book and so they have simply said that it is not suitable reading for anyone who is not already married. And even then, maybe it should be avoided. Which just makes you want to go home this afternoon and read it right? You should. It’s not that long, only eight chapters, four pages in my Bible. It is considered by certain denominations, still to this day, to basically be erotica. And how better to get every young person EVER to read the Bible than to ban a segment of it and declare that it is too sexually titillating to be read before marriage? I wonder how that would go over in Confirmation Class. We’d all be red.

Here, within the United Church of Canada, we don’t really know what to do with this Book ourselves. As I said, unless you break away from following the Lectionary, ministers would never use the Song of Songs as a basis for the sermon. But, we have a tendency to not really follow the Lectionary here at Symons Valley. Instead, we choose themes and select our scripture readings accordingly. Other than being quite explicit in some sections, one reason that Song of Songs is not in the scheduled readings of the Lectionary is because it is one of two Books of the Bible that neglects to mention God in the entire Book. The Book of Esther and Song of Songs are the odd ducks of the Bible in that the Divine is not named once. The Song of Songs is sometimes also called the Song of Solomon but the more accurate title is Song of Songs—which means, the best song of songs—just like we sometimes say king of kings. Its authorship is attributed to King Solomon because he was known to be a composer of songs but Solomon died before its composition.

Although it does not appear to have any overt religious teaching, it is thought that Song of Songs was included in the Bible because it might refer, through the passionate love that the two people express in its story, that deep, intense connection between the two lovers refers to the strong, enduring power of love that God had for the people of Israel. For the Jewish people, the Song of Songs is an account of love between God and Israel and so it is read at the beginning of Passover. The Song of Songs continues the story of the love for the Hebrew people that was expressed by God in the actions of the Exodus. The love story of Song of Songs is the love story between God and God’s people. Christians first built upon this metaphor and story of impassioned love to describe Christ’s love for the Church. Later, Christian theologians have used Song of Songs to speak about the passion that exists when our soul makes a spiritual union with God.

The short selection from Song of Songs that was read today could easily be speaking about one’s relationship with God—set me as a seal upon your heart, many waters cannot quench love. This is one of my favourite lines. Set me as a seal upon your heart. The seal refers to those metal stamps that once were created to represent a person’s signature. They would seal the letter with a wax impression so that the reader knew it was a legitmate piece of correspondence from the sender. People would often where their seal on a chain about their neck or as a ring upon their finger. I find that to be an endearing thougth—set me as a seal upon your heart. For those who have needed this to be more than a love poem, this might be God’s heart we’re talking about. But what if we looked at this as if it was written for love story that it is? What if we assume that if the Holy Spirit moved that day that the Canon was finally decided upon and the reason this Book was included in the Bible was because it so beautifully described the love that can exist between two people? What if the banning of this Book was completely at odds with the intent and purpose of this book—to show a healthy, loving relationship that is filled with sexual attraction—that our bodies are not shameful and to be hidden from one another but instead, to delighted upon by lovers taken to into our heart of hearts? That intimacy between two people who love each other is to celebrated and encouraged?

We humans seem to know inherently that we are move through the world as a member of a group. We are pack animals after all. We have this uncontrollable desire to find a partner to experience life with. Not everyone has that desire and not everyone finds someone worth spending life with but it can’t be denied that the instinct this there. We often have more than just one significant person in our life. We might have a lover but we usually also find a friend or two that sits within the safety zone we create deep within our hearts. We are told again and again that we have been made in the image of God. If we can imagine for a moment that being made in the image of God is not to mean that we physically look like God but rather that we are made to love and be loved as God loves us. If that is true, then maybe the lovers within the Song of Songs is a series of religious teaching after all. Maybe the desire and love that is expressed in this Song is God’s encouragement to each of us to keep our hearts open, to give what is precious and essential of ourselves to the ones who mean more to us above all others. That there is difference between simply having sexual intercourse and making love to one another. And in the giving of that love, in the making of that love, we love as God would love. And through that love, we find God’s love.

*Most of us will agree that the things we love are not as important to us as the people we love. We desire a myriad of things in life such as wealth, health, any number of material things, but in the midst of these, we will be quick to point out that our loved ones stand over and above them all. Those few individuals who bring life and light to the very depths of our being elicit the most profound and intense longings of our heart. By comparing love for our partner to those material things, we do them a profound injustice, failing to delve into their unique and transcendent place in our life. For our desire for those we love is not merely superior to all other desires, it is of a fundamentally different kind.

Imagine the most painful of experiences, the loss of our beloved: Most of us know what it is like to lose someone for whom we would gladly lose everything to save. We find that when we lose the one we love more than life itself, we do not simply lose something we desire, we begin to lose very ability to desire. When we lose our beloved, we find that the other things that once tempted us lose their seductive power. We discover that our beloved is not simply the object of our desire, but the very source of it. We find that the other is the one who invests our activities with meaning and significance. Any of our achievements, while once meaningful to us, now signify nothing. For more than being the mere objects of our deepest desire, those we love are the ones who birth and sustain our very ability to desire. It is not then our beloved’s mere existence that lights up our life with meaning; it is our beloved’s desire for us that his this luminous effect. And, if we feel they no longer love us, we experience profound pain and suffering. What we really desire is the desire of those we desire. Our pleasure is intimately interwoven with the pleasure or pain of those around us. The most sought after material in the universe is not some precious metal or limited resource but rather the attention of those whom we desire.

It is understandable then that we would find ourselves desiring someone who would love us unconditionally and absolutely. An individual who would never cease caring for us, who would never leave our side, never die, and never tire of our presence. It is only natural that we would desire the gaze of one who would forever cradle us and never forsake us. In learning how to give ourselves over the love of another, to be open and vulnerable in their presence, to offer them love and desire just as we crave love and desire from them, we open ourselves up to a love that is greater than all of us. To believe in something greater than anything more than we can possibly imagine is human. We call that one God. We could use other names—Creator, Beloved. The Anglicans have been known to call God, Lover. This is the love that is expressed in the Song of Songs. A love that is without end. A love that cherishes the other. A love that sustains and endures. God wants us to love one another. Fully and completely. Without reservation. To love one another with abandon. For humankind was made in the image of God and it was good. Very, very good. Thanks be to God.

*I owe these three paragraphs to Peter Rollins' book, Insurrection.

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