I had originally intended to say that the seeds of this particular sermon were first planted last week with an few Twitter shares and, later data confirmation, before we got this week’s germane news. Then I got to thinking and praying and realized the seeds were originally sowed fifteen years ago in an entirely different church. I was serving at a parish in OH, and it was coming off a split that deeply divided the parish and some families. I was doing what educators would call my “student-priesting” without the benefit of a rector or vicar. Don’t worry, I had all kinds of supervision to help tell me where I made mistakes. One mistake that wasn’t, though, was a Bible Study on the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, if you prefer. As you all know, I prefer to study the books in Scripture that those assigned to me want to study. If it’s really all about Jesus, as He says the Scriptures are, then there really are no wasted books. I would prefer, then, to study the books that interest those in my care. And, let’s face it, there’s a practical side to such studies: I have a much better chance of people showing up if I let them pick the book of the Bible. If I choose it, the excuse “I’m not really interested in that book” is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. If y’all choose it, I can guilt you by reminding you that you chose the book, not me. See, there’s a madness to my method.
In any event, the parish was struggling over issues related to the recent split. Families were divided over the split. With the split came a loss of energy and financial resources. I learned later some old memories or skeletons had been dredged up. Perhaps the better analogy is that old scars had been wounded . . . again. There was a profound sense of abandonment directed toward the diocese, a sense which arose out of that dread I just mentioned, when a bishop excommunicated members of the Vestry and parish during a visitation one day. There was a sense of abandonment by God, which was understandable given the circumstances. And they were stuck with a seminarian as their professional Christian. Not only did they know they would be responsible for my formation, but they knew our relationship would end sometime in the summer of 2006. Talk about a recipe for pastoral disaster!
So, they approached me about doing a Bible study. Truthfully, I had led a couple in my sending parish, so I was not at all worried about doing one. I told them to pick a book that they wanted to study, and we would study it. Three of the matriarchs, with a bit more than a twinkle in their eyes, came to me after services one Sunday and informed me they had reached a decision. They wanted to study Song of Songs. As I said, there was a bit of twinkle in their eyes, so I asked if they were sure. I told them that while I was certain they had heard sermons that claimed the book was simply a metaphor describing the love of Christ toward the Church, and I was sure that was part of the message of the book, there was an “earthy” quality to it as well. Were they really sure they wanted to study the book? Lots of nodding and murmuring of agreement and giggling followed, so I agreed. We picked a day to start the next week.
That next week, I think five or six folks showed up, and we began to work our way through the book. By the time we finished the book, 56 people were coming to a Bible study class! We had a hard time breaking 40 for Sunday attendance, but we packed people in to that Bible study. I’m not sure who was more amazed, those who learned that God had something important to say about sex or the seminarian who found himself in a room full or grandmother and grandfather types talking explicitly about sex! But the seeds for this sermon harken back to those days. Yes, God gave us sex. Yes, He meant for us to enjoy it. Yes, He gave us a few rules about it because, like everything else in the world, it is or can be corrupted by sin.
And, although you and I live in a hypersexualized culture, how much teaching from the Song of Songs have you ever heard? My guess is that you were like my three matriarchs in OH. If you have heard a sermon on the book, it went right to the metaphor describing the love Christ has for the Church bit. I see the nods. It’s not your fault, and not entirely the preacher’s fault in churches that use the RCL. Did you know that today is the only day in our three year cycle in which the Song of Songs is read for worship? That means you only have a 25% chance of hearing a sermon on this book, once every three years! And we wonder at the sexual brokenness in the world and in the Church. . .
Speaking of more recent times, is there anybody who has not heard the news about the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania over the last couple weeks? If you are keeping score, that means the Romans have been investigated by 8 states. Only 42 states more to go! That’s right, up to 42 more states can investigate how they handled the sexual assaults. Here’s a bit of prediction on my part: they handled it horribly. Boys were harmed. Clergy covered up the harm. Pray for our RC brothers and sisters. My guess is that just as healing begins to happen, another state’s results will be released . . . for forty-two more times.
And while the Church struggles with sex, (have I mentioned that over 40% of regular attending church men and over 20% of women admit to watching pornography weekly?), society is doing little better. As the RC information in PA leaked, I received several copies of Twitter Screenshots that detailed the downward spiral of pornography. I wish I could claim surprise or shock, but Kastleman was telling us back in 2005-6 that the brain on porn functions much like it does on any addictive drug. And just like any addiction, in order to get the same endorphins and “high,” more or, worse, more disturbing things needed to be viewed. The screenshots that folks sent me were detailing this reality coming to life in a, and I do not overuse this word, gross way. In fact, were peoples’ comments to be believed, a company was starting to get worried about this uptick in demand for . . . disturbing videos.
What qualifies as a disturbing video in my world? As part of my work in the fight against sex trafficking, I have shared a number of disturbing stories. Believe it or not, I have filtered out some of the more . . . extreme things that I have seen or heard. Chief among those stories is the increasing demand for “snuff” films, films in which the person, usually a woman, is killed by her lover or, more often, rapist or rapists. Those who lobby on behalf of pornography like to claim it’s all acting. I wish that it was. But even if it’s acting, what does it say about us as a human beings that we “get off” on seeing someone killed during sex? It turns out that August had seen one of the greatest increases in searches for such material in more than a decade. And that may be the easiest to talk about and hear about. The same Tweets pointed out the surge in both anal and oral rape searches and incest. Disgusted? There’s more.
My Monday or Tuesday morning began with everyone texting and e-mailing me about the increase in Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis all experienced huge increases in 2017. Nearly 2.3 million cases were diagnosed in 2017! That means STI infections increased by more than 200,000 cases compared to 2016 and that STI infections had risen for the fourth year in a row! The director of the CDC, a medical doctor, lamented that we are sliding backwards in the spread of STI’s and expressed worry that the system to identify and treat such diseases was near its breaking point. Worse, he was pretty much resigned to the fact that gonorrhea would have no treatment in the foreseeable future. Why should this concern us? The diseases are becoming drug resistant, which means treatment is getting harder and harder (and more costly). Plus, the fact that so many have the diseases asymptomatically means that serious damage is being done. Almost half of all chlamydia cases were discovered in 15-24 year-old females. The longer it goes untreated, the greater the chance for ectopic pregnancies or sterility.
Too often, we believe that sex is a private thing and should be discussed in appropriate places. Based on other discussions I have had around here at church, I know some of you are just sort of fuming right now, that this is not the time or place to talk about sex. The problem for far too many of our youth, of course, is that there never was a good time for a trusted elder to talk to them about sex and relationships. Far too many college youths, high school youths, and even middle school kids tell me their parents or grandparents or whoever keep saying when they are older they will talk to them about it. And when we never get around to sharing with them what God has to say about it, we are shocked and dismayed that they listened to friends and others. So, my first reminder to each of us today is that we need to be willing to talk about sex. God gave us sex and meant for us to enjoy it . . . within certain restrictions. And those restrictions were for our benefit, not because He is mean or capricious. Our passions, rightly ordered, are wonderful, are God-given, and fill us, in turn, with joy. I’m not just talking about the endorphin release that comes from the act, but the security, the acceptance, the “committed-to”ness, the knowledge that we are loved that comes with it as God intended. And, if I can be a bit crass and cause a couple folks to blush, it even makes us a more joyful people. Why the giggling?
So we should not be too surprised that God uses the passionate side of a relationship both to teach us about ourselves and to teach us about Him. I mentioned earlier that one way in which the Song is read is that of a newlywed or passionately-in-love couple. True, if y’all sat down after church and read the poem to each other, some of the imagery would be lost on us. Who here loves a neck that looks like an alabaster tower? What man in his right mind here today would dare tell his wife that her hair reminds him of the goat flocks descending from the mountain pastures of Gilead? Or that her smile reminds him of shorn hooves of ewes? Or that her breasts remind him of fawns? Or that her channel is like an orchard of pomegranates, with nard, saffron, cinnamon, and other spices? See, I told you it was great love poetry. You Outlander ladies really should be reading Song of Songs.
Ladies, you have some difficult imagery with which to contend, too. There is, obviously, some translation necessary. But how many of you compare your husbands to leaping gazelles or young stags? Fewer of you compare your husband’s eyes to a dove, or maybe not, given the giggles. How many of you ladies compare your husband’s cheeks to the beds of spices? Their lips like lilies? Their legs as alabaster columns? Knowing most of the men around here, ladies, you might find yourself in a doctor’s office being checked out for a stroke if you tried those lines on your husbands.
In one sense, of course, the images are important. When I ask you to consider what it is you love about your husband or wife, each of us present has those characteristics that we adore. Men may be more crass in the locker room (she has a great chest or awesome butt), but there are things about their wives that men should treasure. Her scent on a pillow perhaps? Her eyes that see through me? And often in my conversations, husbands value those things the most about which the wife is insecure.
Similarly, we may be impressed with our ability to suck in our guts and expand our chests, but our wives are not really fooled, gentlemen. Again, why are you all giggling? I thought I was making a joke but I’m thinking a lot of you guys are doing just that! Despite our physical appearance, sometimes, our wives love us. Maybe its our broad shoulders or well-defined guns. Perhaps it our eyes or our butts. More likely, in talking with women for fifteen years in ministry, it was our willingness to cook a meal. Our dedicatedness to the family which included working jobs that . . . let’s face it, were not fulfilling or the best. But our strength and commitment still sings to them in the way the poetry of the Song sings today!
One on level, this poem is all about passion and desire, the passion and desire that husbands and wives should have for one another. But it is a committed passion. The husband and the wife in this love poem are passionately dedicated to one another. Make no mistake, the language is earthy because it is meant to remind us of the passion, the desire, that we are called to have for our spouse. This is not a theoretical love. This is active, passionate, longing. At its absolute best, it incarnates the Trinity in the world around us. I will not go to far into that thus morning, but think of the opportunity for hurt and pain in the midst of such passion. Men and women speak different languages, are often driven by different needs and desires. What can unite such unruly passions and desires? The love of God; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; the redemption offered by Christ. But enough of the earthy.
On another level, though, as many of you have heard preached, the poem also teaches us about the desire we should have toward God. What is it in life that you love most? What popped into your head at that question? College football started this weekend and we live in the middle of SEC land, so I bet a few of you have tuned me out in favor of replaying that great game you watched this weekend. The great Ba’al of our country, the NFL, kicks off next week. Maybe visions of Titans or Patriots or God’s chosen franchise, the Steelers, are dancing through your head. We’ve been talking about husbands and wives and sex and imagery, so maybe some of us saw our spouse. I will not ask you to raise your hands, but how many of us have a first passion, a strongest desire, for God?
I know. I see the squirms. That was a little unfair. On one level, though, it is hard to read Song of Songs without finding oneself back in the Garden as God intended. A great deal of the imagery is meant to remind us that we were meant to in love with each other and with God. And given human passions, what better image that use for desire than sex? I mean, I like ice cream, but it does not do it for me the same was as sex. Many ladies love chocolate, but it does not do it for them the same way . . . maybe it’s best gentlemen if we don’t carry that one too far. Man, there’s a lot of snickering and giggling today.
Our strongest desire, our greatest passion, our eros, to use the terms of the Greek speaking Roman world into which Christ entered, was and is meant to be God. He should be the strongest desire in life. Yet how few of us truly desire Him and His presence above all things? How many of us create our own idols and chase after them? How many of us have chased these idols so long that we have become addicted to them and allowed our focus to be shifted away from the One who truly loves us, the One who truly saved us, the One who constantly and consistently chases after us, the One who truly redeems us? Those of you arguing with me in your heads might well be saying that only Jesus could love God like that! Without fault, you are correct. But as His adopted heirs and brothers and sisters, you and I should be so focused at least some of our time; and, more importantly, we should be able to better appreciate His uniqueness and love Him even more! So, our second reminder this morning is that we should desire God above all things. We should be chasing after Him, we should be seeking Him and His will for us, like we chase after our spouses, or after our favorite ice cream, or our favorite hobby, or our favorite sports team.
I mentioned also that Song of Songs has been read exclusively metaphorically by His people through the years. You have perhaps heard those sermons where the preacher explained to you that Jesus was man in the metaphor and the Church, His bride, was the female in the metaphor. No doubt after my recent discussion of desire and passion you can well understand how the Church, the Bride of Christ, is supposed to be chasing after Her Lord, seeking Him whenever He seems absent. Similarly, one overarching illustration of Scripture is that Church is the Bride of Christ and will, at the end, be made radiant Bride, worthy of the Son who redeemed Her. God knows what the bride will look like when He finishes His redemption, and He is passionate about Her. Nothing can keep Him from his plans for Her.
I mentioned a moment ago, but I really want you to focus on this: How hard did God pursue you? How passionate was God in His effort to woo you? To win you? To convince you that He truly loved you and wanted only what was best for you? To use the language of lovers, for how long did you play hard to get? Part of why we gather each week, and at other special times, is to remind ourselves that God is passionately committed to His people. In one sense, all of Scripture is a love story. God creates human beings and places man and woman in the Garden. We sin and get kicked out because we do not trust His love of us. What follows is the effort by God to draw us back into right relationship with Him. What follows is His effort to teach us how much He desires us! Desires us! Time and time again, His chosen people reject Him. Every once and a while, for a few short years, His people live a He instructs, as He teaches. But, far too quickly, His people find themselves seduced away from His desire.
Then, as you each know and as we re, He sent His Son to incarnate that love. How did we respond to the Incarnation? Did we say “ah, finally. We understand!”? No, we killed Him. To be frank, we betrayed, we tortured, we allowed Him to be crucified. Even worse, we mocked Him as He hung there, willing Himself to demonstrate His passion for us, tempting Him to give up the purpose for which He came down from heaven. In the midst of our failure He demonstrated once and for all His incredible desire, His undying commitment to each one of us! He rejected our temptations and fulfilled the job for which He came down.
And, as much as we like to blame those who came before us, how well do you and I do in response to His passion for us? I know the temptation is to believe that we would do better, were we present at those events. But would we? Would we really? If so, how is it that we, born this side of the empty Tomb and this side of the Pentecost, doubt His love for us? If so, how is it that we, who read these stories of those who have gone before us in our faith, worry that we are the unlovable one, the one whom God would not really pursue, would not really woo, would not really love? How easily are we led into temptation? How easily do we rationalize our sins despite knowing the cost He paid for us and the glory to which He calls each one of us? No, we would do no better than our spiritual ancestors.
The third lesson I want us to remember this day is the simple truth that God desires us in the way that we should desire Him. He cherishes us as a new husband cherishes his new bride. He is as passionate towards us as young newlyweds are toward one another. Time and time again we reject His love for us; time and time again we chase after idols and abandon the One who truly loves us. And though we post-modernists might like to discount God’s love for us as something more theoretical, Scripture is full of reminders of the passion and desire that he has that we would return to Him! Song of Songs simply spells that passion out in short verse and using an imagery we can all understand. And, for those who like to study Scripture, this passage in particular helps teach us, helps remind us, that our disordered passions to one another have their roots in the sin in the Garden.
Standing here this morning, I have seen the squirms, the elbows to the ribs, the consternation on faces. At various times you have expressed nervous laughter at what I have said today. I get it. I understand it. We like our world organized. We go to church to be “spiritual.” We do other things to be seen as earthy. When that boundary is crossed, we are made very uncomfortable. The problem, of course, is that you and I live in a culture that talks all the time about sex. Sex is used to sell everything from cars to hamburgers, from exotic vacations to refrigerators, from movies and miniseries to books. We will tolerate sex being used all the time in places we should deem inappropriate, but let a preacher point out that God, who created sex, has something to say about it or that God can use it to reach us with His Gospel? Well, now, there are lines we just don’t cross. Part of the majesty of the Song of Songs is the reminder, from God, that human love and godly love are not mutually exclusive. Part of the instruction of the Song of Songs is that we do the world no favors in our efforts to segregate what we think is holy or spiritual from what we think is earthy or crass. When we keep silent, when we snuff out the light of Christ and wisdom of God that is within us, we allow others to grope about in blindness, in darkness.
Brothers and sisters, you and I live in a world confused and distorted. We live in a world that loves the darkness far more than the Light. Yet we serve a God who intended all that He created for good. Sex was not meant to be a cheap advertising trick. Sex was not meant to be an excuse for rape or degradation or humiliation. Sex was not meant as something undertaken likely, as if it is really “no big deal.” It was intended as a glorious and intimate act between a man and a woman who were as committed to passionately serving, passionately desiring one another, as God desires us and we should desire Him. More amazingly, it was meant to be yet another teaching, another incarnation if you will, about God. For all those differences between men and women, for all those unruly wills and different “languages,” the two committed to chasing after one another and God in all things. And, even more amazing if we stop for just a moment to consider, such passionate commitments became a physical reminder of the Trinity, even to the point of creating new life where none existed before.
It’s not often that I preach three point sermons. As I mentioned at the start, it’s even rarer that I get to preach on Song of Songs. But brothers and sisters, these are conversations we need to be having. To use Jim’s turn of phrase, we need to be wrestling with God about sex. What did He intend? Why did He create it? What’s wrong with . . . ? We need to be having these conversations within these walls, in our prayers, with those in our families, and, as uncomfortable as it might make us, in the wildernesses where we work and play. Our silence, our partitions, do no one any favors. Because of my work, you know far more about sex trafficking than any of you wanted to know four short years ago. Thanks to the work of others, you know far more about sex abuse and misogyny than you likely thought you ever would need to know. That, and others, are the fruits of our silence. Brothers and sisters, the world needs to hear God’s voice on this and every subject. He has chosen you and me to be His herald, His ambassador, His representative, His prince or princess. Like it or not, it falls to us to have these discussions, to remind people that sex, yes even sex, was a gift from God and meant to point to Him! And like those young lovers in this poem we read today, He is passionate that you would represent Him and His teachings well, even to the point of giving you His words to say in those conversations you would rather avoid.
In Christ’s Peace,