Today our Hebrew Testament reading is a selection from the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. This short Biblical book of a mere eight chapters is a collection of love poems. It has been attributed to King Solomon because his name is mentioned several times, although the dating of the writing is uncertain and therefore its authorship is as well.
In these poems a woman and a man make mutual declarations of love to one another. Each delights in describing the physical charms that enamor them. In chapter 1, verse 15, the man exclaims, “Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.” And in chapter 2, verse 9 the woman proclaims, “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows.”
Throughout the book a delicate mood of love, devotion, sensuality, and even at times eroticism is maintained. Certainly the use of metaphor to describe human sensuality is rich in its imagery. In chapter 4, verse 5 the man writes, “Your two breasts are like fawns, twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.”
The Church has long been embarrassed by the unabashed sensuality and eroticism in this series of love poems. Some of the early Church fathers, and later many Calvinists, wanted to purge Song of Songs from the Biblical canon due to its erotic qualities.
Interestingly these puritanical minds never called to edit out the violent texts in the Bible, only the ones about human love and sexuality. Clearly the old adage, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," applies here. How often are religious people today squeamish about human sexuality and love, but benignly accepting of the rampant violence that infects our culture? Too often, I would say.
Song of Songs is a call to love. Scholars are divided as to whether Song of Songs’ poems describe the love between two human beings or are metaphorical, describing the love between God and God’s people. As many of you know, I am not a Biblical literalist and so I am open to hearing these poems either way. Why limit the way God, through the text, can speak to us and enrich our spiritual lives? And frankly, these poems incarnate holy truths either way you read them.
Yet, if you want to be a Biblical Sherlock Holmes, a clue indicating that the poems are actually about the love between two human beings is that the name God is not used at all in Song of Songs. Along with the Book of Ruth, they are the only two books in scripture to not mention God at all. And yet both are rich with the holy truths of God.
Finding and expressing love is high on the list of human priorities. It’s why the recent movement to legalize same-sex marriage was so important. Healthy, mutual, committed, loving relationships between two adults are a critical component of human life. Legitimizing and sanctifying two people in marriage honors, upholds and sustains that love.
Ask anyone in a happy marriage and they’ll tell you, there is nothing like it. We might very well ask Anne and Bob Elliott, who celebrate their 50th anniversary and are renewing their sacred wedding vows this morning, if this isn’t the case. Whether it is love’s first blush or the seasoned love of having lived and loved for decades, committed lovers would have it no other way. Anne and Bob are witnesses to this truth. We at Christ Church see this all the time in their love for each other, a love that has endured and grown richer over a half century.
But, as the immortal and seductive voice of Barry White once crooned, “Love ain’t easy.” The truth is, lovers can’t take their love for granted, just like we humans cannot take for granted our loving relationship with God. Love and relationship take hard work, or maybe better put, nurturing.
In the Church, we make vows to be totally committed to that nurturing: a couple to each other in their wedding ceremony, and as individuals, to God in the baptismal covenant. In the later these vows call us to persevere in our relationship with God and when we have failed in our endeavors to repent and return to God. In the wedding vows we commit to love, honor and keep one another, in sickness and in health and forsaking all others be faithful as long as we live.
This wedding vow is something our culture poignantly needs to be reminded of, especially in light of the recent Ashley Madison website scandal, where millions of people have forgotten – or set aside - the hard work of love, ignoring their vows to be faithful to their spouse.
Love ain’t easy. It requires constant cultivation of the relationship soil so that mutual conversation, intimacy and trust can thrive. This is a sacred endeavor, achieved through mindfulness of and attentiveness to the other. We do this – as Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel – being doers of the word, and not merely hearers; ever mindful that it is what comes out of the human heart that allows us to succeed - or fail - at love and relationship. This is not occasional work; we endeavor to do it daily, hourly and even on a minute-to-minute basis. It is our life’s task. Most importantly, we do this sacrificially — a seemingly alien concept these days — setting aside our own needs because we highly value our love for our beloved.
Another key detail to note in Song of Songs is that the woman’s voice predominates over that of the man’s, appearing just under 75% of the time in the poems. Her voice is heard clearly and in a positive light. Those of you who have some understanding of the scriptures know this is unusual. All too often, women in the Bible are seen in a negative light or no light at all. Eve, Bathsheba, Jezebel, Mary Magdalene and many other women are portrayed as problematic and even inferior characters. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is only seen in a positive light (well, except when she is the nagging Jewish mother in the Wedding at Cana story) because she is generally characterized as being meek, mild and compliant: Just what the male patriarchy likes women to be.
One scholar theorizes that, “perhaps [Song of] Songs was included [in the Bible] to counter the many references comparing the adulterous woman [in scripture] to Israel’s idolatry in its relationship with God. What better way to make that contrast than a positive portrayal of an intimate relationship with the woman’s voice preeminent?”
This interpretation of the book makes Song of Songs a unique gift to us.
We live in a time when music, movies, the media, advertising and many of our political leaders simultaneously extol and exploit love. These images are often distorted, abusive, misogynistic, and titillating.
Simultaneously, we live in a time when we need women’s shelters to protect women and their children from domestic and family violence. We live in a time when human sex trafficking rivals the drug trade for illegal financial gain. We live in a time when women around the globe are kidnapped, raped, disrespected, physically mutilated, sold like chattel and murdered if they don’t acquiesce.
These horrific situations do not portray love. Rather they speak of violence, subjugation, abuse and inferiority. All of which have nothing to do with love.
We need the Song of Songs. We need the Song of Songs to remind us that women are as equally created in the image of a loving God as men. We need Song of Songs to remind us that mutual, respectful, faithful, sensual love between two human beings is a gift from God.
As we celebrate Anne and Bob’s love for each other, today is a lovely day to hear the Song of Songs and its words of intimacy and fidelity. We need to hear the Song of Songs every day. We need to hear voices like those of the man and the woman in the scripture, and of Anne and Bob, and of all people who are truly, deeply in love. We need them in word and deed to speak boldly out of their hearts of what true love is, and of its holiness. We need them to do this because we need to be reminded of what love can be.
 Alphonetta Wines, Pastor, Bible Scholar, and Theologian, Dido United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, Texas