(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Aug 30, 2015)
Chased Out of the Church
My best from high school and I went separate ways when it came time for college. I headed east to Williamsburg. He went west to Charlottesville. But we stayed in touch, and from time to time we’d call and shoot the breeze. We’d usually talk about classes and grades (we were nerds before it was cool to be nerds). But there was one call when we didn’t touch on any of this. One call that was very different….
My phone buzzed, and I saw that it was him. I answered expectantly, only to hear hushed breathing. The breathing soon gave way to a low, murmuring voice. I could only make out bits and pieces of what was being said. Something about “golden, flowing locks.” And as the voice increased in volume, I heard something about “roguish eyes.” And then “voluptuous lips.” By this point, spasms of laughter were interrupting the flow of strange images. Then there was the sound of running. A shriek or two. And just as strangely as the call began, it ended.
What were the mysterious events that lay behind this call? I would later learn that my friend had picked up a romance novel in the bookstore and then had mischievously begun to read it aloud. His dramatic recitation had soon enough caught the attention of one of the clerks, who asked him to stop, and when he continued unfazed, chased him around and out of the store.
If the Song of Songs were a person, I imagine that it would readily sympathize with my friend’s experience. Ever since its inclusion in the Bible, priests and rabbis have been trying to chase it out of church and synagogue. It’s no coincidence that the Song of Songs only shows up once a year in our lectionary, our calendar for church readings.
And this priestly and rabbinic anxiety is not without reason. The Song of Songs is a rather scandalous text. For one thing, if the Motion Picture Association were to give it a rating, they would likely confer upon it an R for “adult themes.” But perhaps even more scandalous than that, the Song does not make a single mention of God.
Merely a Human Affair?
Considering the circumstances, the Song of Songs has fared remarkably well: better than my friend, for sure, for while the bookshop clerk succeeded in chasing him out of the bookshop, the Song has remained in the Bible. But the priests and rabbis have succeeded in covering up its more risqué bits, making it more suitable for young children. (The Motion Picture Association would rate this priestly remake a G). The priests and rabbis have put on layer after layer of theological interpretation. The Song, they say, is really a song about the love between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church. It is really just a metaphor about God’s love.
The only problem with this, of course, is that the text itself never even hints at the possibility of metaphor. The text itself only sings about human love. Much like my friend’s dramatic reading, which spectacularly involved the impersonation of two enraptured lovers, the Song primarily features a dialogue between two lovers. And this is remarkable in its ancient context. In ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, love was often envisioned as more of a one-way street; love poetry typically featured only one speaker. The Song of Songs illustrates a remarkably egalitarian and mutual love, where both lovers speak of their desire, where both initiate romance. In today’s short passage, we hear the woman speak. She bids us on more than one occasion, “Look!”—giving the sense of immediacy, helping us to imagine that we are in her place, that we ourselves are looking at her lover. She reports what he says, and so we hear him too. It’s almost as though he’s inviting us to arise and go away with him.
It’s an invitation that probably already echoes in many of our hearts, an invitation that many of us have heard before. It’s a most unique feeling, isn’t it? Because we are normally so frightened of change and newness. We are normally so frightened of the unknown. And yet when we hear the call of love, that fear melts in the fire of anticipation, in the desire to explore the unknown, to see more, feel more, know more.
God Is Not in the Song, God Is the Song
When we hear the call of love, it’s almost as though, for a fleeting moment, we realize that our hearts are not ours but rather that they belong to the world. That they are always in relationship with other hearts. That they are connected in some fundamental sense with all of creation. Love not only channels our attention and desire toward another heart but opens us up to all of creation, to sights, sounds, tastes, smells: to the glory of budding flowers and the song of the turtledove (2:12), to the taste of figs and the fragrance of vines in full bloom (2:13).
Juan Ramón Jiménez captures this idea brilliantly, that the love for a particular person becomes a doorway to the universe. That genuine love does not lose itself in a single object but rather invites us to arise and to see and to glory in all of the life around us. Here’s how he puts it:
I unpetalled you, like a rose,
to see your soul,
and I didn’t see it.
but everything around
—horizons of land and of seas—,
everything out to the infinite,
was filled with a fragrance,
enormous and alive.
Perhaps love is God’s invitation to life.
And perhaps the reason that the Song of Songs never mentions God is because to do so would be redundant. God is not in the Song because God somehow is the Song, because God is the mysterious call and response of love that leads us more deeply into life. The Bible very rarely tries to define God as one thing or another, but in one of the rare cases that it does, it says simply, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Not God is power. Not God is knowledge. God is love.
Our passage today gives us one beautiful suggestion of what this might mean. Twice we hear, “Arise…and come away” (2:10, 13). Which implies that love is a call, an invitation. God has traditionally been defined as all-powerful and all-knowing, and many people ultimately treat faith as though it were about choosing the winning side, that is, making sure you’re in the good graces of the God who controls everything. But if God is love, then perhaps this sort of faith could use some rethinking. Maybe God’s “might” has less to do with the might of an all-powerful ruler and more to do with the “might” of a relationship, the “this might happen or might not,” the vulnerability that allows for new possibilities. Maybe God calls rather than coerces, entices rather than enforces; maybe God makes eyes at us through the window of our existence. Maybe God solicits more than God supervises. Remember God’s words that brought creation into existence? God does not imperiously say, “There will be light,” but rather, invitingly, “Let there be light.” Maybe God has more to do with a knock on our door, a call that draws us out into the unknown, into newness, into change. The kind of call that we would normally be terrified of. But when it is God calling—which is to say, when it is love calling—we are somehow emboldened to say “Yes.”
Over the last month, I’ve been blessed to visit with a number of our shut-ins. And commonly they’ve told me fond memories of dear loved ones. While each shut-in tells these memories differently, their faces share something in common: a certain glow. A glow that makes me think of Moses, whose own face glowed after he had spent time with the Lord. So I cannot help but wonder if perhaps the memories of these shut-ins are nothing less than memories of their encounters not only with their loved ones but with God. I cannot help but wonder if their stories of love are nothing other than the story of God. Each one of them heard a call and went “away.” They ventured into the unknown of other hearts and into the unknown of this wide world. And there they encountered God.
The Real Scandal
I’m happy that the priests and the rabbis and the others who’ve tried were not completely successful in chasing the Song of Songs out of the church and out of the synagogue. Yes, it is a scandalous poem, a poem of erotic human love, a poem without one mention of God. But then, perhaps it need not mention God because its story somehow is the story of God, of how God moves about our world. The human love that the Song sings about is like one of the main tributaries of God’s love, a tributary that catches us in its flow and carries us into the rapids of abundant life.
Perhaps the real scandal of the Song of Songs and the Bible is a God who is love. Perhaps the real scandal is that God does not sit at some master control board, seeing and controlling everything, but instead lives among us and loves us in a very real bodily way, through the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of this world, through the relationships we are blessed with in this world. And perhaps the real scandal is that we follow this God not for reasons of power or knowledge but simply because we want to: we find ourselves overwhelmed with a deep, unknown desire for something that no word can do justice for other than “God,” a desire that makes us say “yes” to life and to want more, a desire that draws us into a vulnerable and loving relationship with each other and with all of creation.
The world is a wild and wondrous place, God, although we sometimes make it a terrible and terrifying place. Open our eyes, unstop our ears, heighten our senses, so that we may fall more fully in love with the world around us, so that we may feel your love for us in all of creation, so that we might be a part of this world’s redemption. In the calm of a sunset, in the gentle pull of a gentle moon, in the laughter of a child, in the unspoken understanding of a friend, in the sound of traffic that gruffly says, “Good morning”—in these moments, in any moment when are our hearts are somehow overwhelmed with life, may we hear you knocking on our door, see you looking through our window, receive you proposing on one knee, and may we arise vulnerably and walk away lovingly into the unknown newness of abundant life.
 Juan Ramón Jiménez, “I Unpetalled You,” in Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation (ed. Roger Housden; New York: Harmony, 2003), 60.
 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 16.
 Jean Vanier, “Where the Weak and the Strong Dance Together,” in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World (eds. Bob Abernethy and William Bole; New York: Seven Stories, 2007), 376: “[W]e yearn to discover and know a God who became flesh, not a God who came to manifest the power of God but rather to manifest God’s love and togetherness and tenderness.”