Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Solomon's Forgotten Song

A few years ago, I taught a Bible study on Song of Solomon. Our group met weekly, moving from one book of the Bible or a specific biblical theme to another, and, after building some trust with the group, I decided to study the Song. In the Bible, the love of husband and wife is a common image for God's love for the world. So, too, is the love of parent and child. But rarely is God's love for us likened to the passion between two lovers. We read the entire Song, starting with the images in the text and then digging beneath the surface in search of its sexual connotations and then digging further to make the connection between those sexual images and God's love for us. At times, it felt like a competition among us to see who could make everyone else blush. I think everyone enjoyed it.

On Sunday, those congregations that use Track 1 of the RCL will read Song of Solomon 2:8-13. Those who use Track 2 won't have that opportunity, nor will they ever have that opportunity. These 6 verses are the ONLY verses from Song of Solomon that we read during the three-year lectionary cycle, and they only appear twice: this week in Proper 17B and as a secondary choice in Proper 9A. In both cases, they are only read in Track 1. In the Episcopal Church, one of the marriage readings is from Song of Solomon, but Sunday congregations only get the slightest passing encounter with it. Why?

A member of our parish staff, who grew up in the Baptist church, said, "As an adolescent, I was told not to read it." He recalled being told that it was a book in the Bible that was off-limits to children and youth. Given its clear passages about sex before marriage and giving into one's passions and hiding from family and neighbors during outdoor romps, it may have been off-limits for adults, too. It is erotic. Its images may not be explicit, but what they represent surely is. Hands being thrust into cracks, channels blossoming with orchids and pomegranates, one's beloved pasturing his flock among the lilies...let the reader understand! The problem, of course, isn't with the biblical text but with us. We aren't comfortable talking about the beauty of sexual intimacy and the created sexual identity of the human person, so we sure aren't comfortable talking about God in that way.

The passage we have for Sunday is pretty tame. (Maybe that's why we only read this one.) In it, the narrative voice hears the voice of her beloved, and her heart stirs. She sees him standing behind the garden wall, peeking in through the lattice. He speaks to her, beckoning her to come out with him. As the flowers blossom and figs produce fruit, it is spring and summer all at once, and his arrival and their time together represents the end of winter's darkness and the time for singing and celebration. Does God ever come to us like that? Do we allow ourselves to be beckoned away by our beloved?

We belong to God. God loves us without limit. Sometimes that feels like belonging in a kindergarten class or at a family table. Sometimes that feels like being loved by a parent or a friend. But sometimes our belonging to God is better described as the kind of belonging that nothing else can break through--the kind of togetherness that is shown by two young lovers who can't even hear their parents calling out to them. Sometimes God's love for us is as possessive as a captivated lover who thinks of nothing else all day long. That's how God loves us...if we are willing to remember it.

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