February 14, 2021: Song of Songs
In the church calendar today is normally something called transfiguration sunday on the last sunday before lent each year which is also the last sunday after the epiphany the legendary gospel text is always the story of the transfiguration of jesus as told by either matthew mark or luke. Chances are if you've been around the church for a while you have frequently heard the story of the transfiguration on the last sunday before lent. It's a great story. It's an important story. And jesus ministry and imagine that will return to it on this particular sunday next year but of course today is also valentine's day which does not fall on sunday all that often and so. I figured that we would do a valentine's related service because our faith actually has some important things to say about the subject of romantic love. I think that some people only associate valentine's day with the greeting card and floral and boxed chocolate industries kind of assuming that it's a modern invention but in fact even though it's evolved over the years of course. The formal recognition of valentine's day is actually. It's actually quite ancient. Believe it or not. The church has recognized saint valentine's day for over fifteen hundred years now there are some disputes over. The precise bridgeable. Saint valentine and there are actually several roman catholic saints by that name but we know that the historical figure whoever he was lived in the late third century. ad we know that at the end of the fifth century. The pope declared february fourteenth to be saint valentine's day and it has long been associated with romantic love. Valentine's greetings go back at least as far as the middle ages the oldest known. Valentine was a poem written in fourteen fifteen which is now part of the manuscript collection of the british library in london. Americans have been exchanging valentine's day valentine's since the early seventeen hundreds several generations before the declaration of independence and today valentine's day is celebrated in countries around the world. Many of us. I become acquainted with or certainly pretty familiar with valentine's day in school exchanging notes and candy with classmates back when i was a kid. I'm not sure. I don't think my kids still do this. But back then we would take into school and we would decorate the box with a valentine's day theme. We'd get red and paint construction paper. Cutout hart's put coupons and stuff like that all over them now full disclosure. I've never really been all that keen on those kinds of crafts. I never could cut a really good heart to save my life. But i was always in favor of the valentine's day parties in our class the cupcakes and the punch and those little weird tasting heart shaped candies with messages on the candidates like jamaal. Actually the gross up for the chocolate. But anyway you know what i'm talking about now. Who knows how. The pandemic will affect valentine's day this year but last year americans spent over twenty seven billion dollars on this holiday dedicated to let us twenty seven billion dollars generation. Only speaking my generation gen x. Spent the most on valentine's day. Averaging two hundred ninety three dollars boomers spent the least on average. A fifty five dollars was their can make of that. What you will and seventy percent of americans in romantic relationships got their significant others a gift which means that the vast majority of us commemorate this holiday dedicated to love in some way a decidedly commercial holiday. Clearly that began with decidedly religious roots. All of which got me to thinking about the only book of the bible that is dedicated entirely to the subject of romantic love. There is indeed such a book and since our faith ancestors considered it worthy of inclusion in the bible surely valentine's day is the day to read from it known as canticles or the song of songs or the song of solomon the title of this short little book. It's only eight chapters long linguistically speaking means the sublime song or the superlative song it's attributed to king solomon but scholars argue that its literary quality is so sophisticated that it may very well have been written by a professional secular poet. In fact the name of god does not appear anywhere in the book and it may very well have been written originally as a wedding song so perhaps not surprisingly our text. Today we're going to read in just a minute is frequently. Read at weddings. Whitney and i chose it for our wedding so it has long been near and dear to my heart. We're going to read a couple of brief passages one from the second chapter one from the eighth chapter. We'll start with the second chapter now. So listen friends. For the word of god as it is proclaimed by god's servant the author of the song of solomon this is chapter two versus ten to thirteen. My beloved speaks and says to me arise my love my fair one and come away for now. The winter is passed. The rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. The time of singing has come and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth it's figs and the vines are in blossom they give fourth fragrance. Arise my love my fair one and come away. Says the word of god for the people of god. Thanks be to god over the years. I've presided at a fair number of weddings. As you might imagine. i've. I've done a wedding for a couple. That was just out of high school. I've done a wedding for a couple. That was well into retirement. I've done family weddings and weddings for former youth. Who i had seen. Make the journey through adolescence during my tenure as a youth minister. I've done weddings for church staff members and the adult children of family friends. I've done weddings and lots of different outdoor settings in the sanctuaries and chapels of the churches that i've served and in people's homes. I've done weddings on new year's eve and new year's day at one wedding. I forgot the words of the lord's prayer. Not great that was very early in my career thankfully that was a a lakeside wedding on a windy afternoon in march. So most people couldn't hear what i was saying anyway and i did a wedding one christmas night at the bedside of the mother of the bride. She was just days away from the end of a long battle with cancer and her fiercely. Loving family was determined that she would get to see her. Only child get married. That young couple had their first child. Just a few weeks ago. These weddings have included a tremendous variety of details. Unique to the personality of each couple colors. The flowers the settings the circumstances the histories of the bride and groom the music. The readings some have included a unity. Candle some had included a mixing of different colored sand which is kinda cool. Some have included the wrapping of a couples hands with a stole at one wedding. We had the jumping the broom which is a unique cultural tradition with which had been completely unfamiliar until then but despite all the beautiful diversity of these celebrations there have been. They've been to common denominators. I is a before god. Which is the point of having a pastor. Do the service at all. It is a religious ceremony the introduction to the wedding liturgy in our united methodist hymnal puts it this way christian marriage is proclaimed as a sacred covenant reflecting christ's covenant with church the other common denominator is that at least in our methodist tradition. A wedding celebrates a covenant relationship of mutuality and equality as the hymnal puts it both words and actions consistently reflect the belief that the couple are equal partners in christian marriage. One of the most popular scripture readings for weddings comes from the first letter to the corinthians in the thirteenth chapter paul writes thirteen beautiful verses describing love versus. That are familiar to many. You've probably heard this before. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not era or resentful it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth it bears. All things believes all things hopes. All things endures. All things love never ends. But the fact is that. Paul actually had a decidedly ambivalent view of marriage writing earlier in first corinthians in the seventh chapter. He actually refers to marriage as a concession. Never having been married himself paul writes. I wish that all were as i myself am. He's essentially saying it's fine to get married if you have to have romantic companionship. As much as i love. Paul and i do love paul. I have a decidedly more favourable view of romance than heated so that that later very famous thirteenth chapter of first corinthians is actually about god's love for us it's about a gop love divine love which which absolutely should influence the way that we love our significant others but paul never would have expected that passage to become a popular wedding. Text the song of solomon on the other hand is literally about romantic love. We're reading a couple of passes today but there are parts of the song of solomon that are filled with innuendo. And there's no evidence that it was intended to be read any other way now. It's true that jewish scholars over the centuries have aller- derived the song of songs interpreted to be about god's love for israel. It's this allard. Work interpretation that that got included in the bible in fact as late as the second century jewish rabbis. We're not. we're not completely agreed that it should be in the cannon at all and then later christian scholars continued this allegorical interpretation understanding it to be about christ's love for his church but for the original author. The song of solomon was about a great gift that god has given to humanity the gift of romantic love. The song of solomon is formation of the truth that we were created for relationship with each other that love is gift from god and that that healthy romantic love is a of mutuality between two equal partners right. Let's read the second little passage from the eighth chapter near the end of the song. These are verses six and seven. listen again friends. The word of god set me as a seal upon your heart as a seal upon your arm for love is strong as death passion fierce as the grave its flashes are flashes of fire a raging flame. Many waters cannot clinch love. neither can floods drown it if one offered for love. All the wealth of one's house it would be utterly scorned. there's an important detail in the song of solomon. That's easy to miss but we have to recognize it if we're going to read this poem properly we've got to recognize it if we're going to understand the theology that this texas trying to convey written in an era that was decidedly patriarchal. The song of solomon is decidedly counter cultural because it presents a running dialogue between a young man and a young woman probably teenagers by the way who see themselves as equal partners in their relationship. My harpercollins study bible in the introduction to this book love in the song is seen as a communion of souls expressed by tightly interlocking dialogue. It is also a mode of perception for when the lovers look at each other. They see a world of their own. If that does not describe young love a communion of souls a world of their own does now as in much ancient poetry variety of voices in the song of solomon there are parts that reflect the words of a chorus and then there are parts that reflect the words of maidens who are friends of this young woman but the primary dialogue is between a couple who are totally enchanted by their romantic feelings for each other. The young woman begins in the very first chapter by saying let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth for your love is better than wine. You're anointing oils. Fragrant your name is perfume poured out therefore the maidens love. You and. i guess you could read that allegorically but that that sounds pretty straightforward to me and then The poem unfolds a conversation between these two with the chorus and the maidens chiming in from time to time. The young man is actually the speaker in the first versus that we read. Arise my love my fair one and come away. The woman responds to that by saying my beloved is mine and i in his and i'm gonna stop there because there're kids watching this and the window gets pretty vivid after that and then the man responds. How beautiful you are my love. How very beautiful. Your eyes are doves behind your veil and on and on it goes back and forth and then in what is the surest to me of the mutuality of this relationship. The high point of the poem is spoken by this by this strong assertive young woman. She tells her beloved. Set me as a seal upon your heart as a seal upon your arm for love is strong as death passion fierce as the grave. Those are the words of an equal partner in a mutually respectful relationship which is really pretty radical theology for the old testament inspired scripture in which god is giving us a vision for what love should be a vision for what love could be a vision for what love is at its best and while this may be a love home between a couple of teenagers a passionate dialogue between two young people with their entire lives yet to unfold a wedding song to be sung on the threshold of their lives together while all that is indeed. It's original context for all of us. Who's young love has now matured into middle age or beyond for those of us who have walked together through the joys and sorrows the rough patches and the trials the mountain tops and the valleys the glories and the grief that life inevitably brings for those of us who love has endured and sustained us and made life more meaningful than otherwise would have been this image of romantic love at its best spoken by the poet from the perspective of a teenage girl. Almost three thousand years ago is truly the greatest most hopeful testimony to a healthy relationship. That i've ever read love at its best is strong as death. Passion at its best is fierce as the grave. And i am so grateful that our sacred texts give us these enduring words to describe the great gift of god that we celebrate on valentine's day each year so friends however it is that you're celebrating today with whomever you're celebrating today. Whatever you think of this particular holiday that has much deeper and much more theological routes than we often realise. May we all celebrate the vision of love given to us by the only book of the bible dedicated to the subject. Thanks be to. God i'm in.