Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
I directed the Writing Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1984-1987. In one project we told the students that they were to pretend they were on the governing board of a local school against which a complaint had been lodged claiming that one of their teachers was teaching pornography. As evidence we gave to the students a type-written copy of the Song of Solomon. To one group of students we identified the text as from the Bible; to the other group of students we gave no attribution. Each group of students was to write an evaluation of the Song in light of the charges that had been made against it.
Although few of the students themselves were Christians, the group who knew the text to be from the bible were far more reluctant to call it pornography than were the students who had no such information. Students who treated the text like any other text were quicker to proclaim it pornographic and to suggest that the teacher was wrong to assign it.
The Song of Song has many sections with far more erotic suggestions than one may find in today’s reading. The passage today merely hints of the erotic. The beloved peeks through the lattice from outside and tells his beloved to come away with him to celebrate together the fragrant new life of spring.
See a full account of the assignment written under my Chinese pseudonym Li Min Hua.
Although the Song of Solomon is a frequent source of phrases in Christian hymnody, almost never does anyone preach on its narrative. Some prudish versions of the text overlay it with names of subdivisions that suggest that it be read as an allegory of Christ and his bride the Church. How anachronistic! The book has a life of its own in Hebrew Scriptures, and was written long before the birth of Christ. If I try to force the Christian detail as allegory, the details become increasingly inappropriate, for what is Christ doing having sexual relations with the Church?
Never is God mentioned in the Song of Solomon. Nor is the Song meant to have a clear liturgical use, such as the psalms. No, it appears to be a free-standing erotic poem that celebrates young love in quite close and specific detail, charged with enthusiasm. Sometimes even the gender references grow fuzzy and you don’t know whether the text is talking about a man and a woman, a man and a man, or whomever.
What a fine and holy gift, and what a shame that many are too spiritually immature to receive it as such!
I am reminded of the scene in Spike Lee’s movie Do the right thing when the pizza delivery person (Spike Lee himself) delivers a pizza to his girl friend on a very hot day as an excuse for getting into her house and getting past her much displeased mother. At one point in the love-making he goes to the refrigerator and removes some ice cubes, which he then uses to cool his girl friend. While doing so he speaks a litany of praise, “I thank you God for breasts……”
Judaism more readily celebrates the body than does Christianity. Rabbis are expected to beget many children, whereas for almost 1,000 years priests, at least in the west, were expected to give up sexual pleasures as less than holy.
And plopped right here in the middle of the lectionary on the last Sunday of August, while most families and many priests are still on vacation is one small sliver of biblical evidence that God likes creation, that God likes our skin, our eyes, our touch…… Take time to be holy: take time to be whole; take time to be hale: enjoy the treat!
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
Today’s psalm competes with the Song of Songs for rich sensual details. Instead of writing with a pen, the psalmist elects to sing his praise, using his tongue as a pen.
You are the fairest of men; *
grace flows from your lips,
Not “from your mouth” -- which would be an organ of speech, but “from your lips.”
The king has been
anointed with the oil of gladness above your fellows.
All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, aloes, and cassia, *
and the music of strings from ivory palaces makes you glad.
Kings' daughters stand among the ladies of the court; *
on your right hand is the queen,
adorned with the gold of Ophir.
Note all the olfactory appeal, all the tactile appeal. This poetry pulses with celebration of sensuality. Everyone is decked out to be beautiful and enjoyed.
The story is told of a bishop who was ill and went to a specialist. The physician was also an Episcopalian and said to the bishop, “Your grace, I fear I must ask you to stick out your evil member.”
With some embarrassment, the bishop began to unzip his trousers.
With more embarrassment, the physician said, “Your grace, I spoke to you with the literalism of scripture. Please stick out your tongue.”
The doctor refers, of course, to today’s text from St. James’ epistle: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
Sensual detail seems quite remote from St. James’ text. He’s off on a puritanical purge, urging Christians to exercise great discipline and self-restraint. He speaks of God’s gift of a “world of truth,” not a world of touch, smell and taste. He proclaims “the perfect law, the law of liberty”; but his is not the “Sin boldly!” of Martin Luther, in the throes of God’s grace. Instead, James stresses “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
St. James sounds much like those who come to Jesus complaining that he is not following the cleanliness codes, that he is eating the wrong kinds of food with the wrong kind of people. His disciples have not washed properly and eat with defiled hands.
I like to think Jesus was fully steeped in the Song of Solomon and in the rich sensuality of Psalm 45. He rebukes the religious people who attack him, and calls them hypocrites. Their rules are human rules: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then, much as God was to say to Peter later on a rooftop in Joppa, Jesus says to his critics:
Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
Much of the current hostility in the Anglican Communion toward the Episcopal Church is rage that it is not following the strict rules against homosexuals that have become the traditional way of understanding lgbt persons. “They put their sexual equipment in the wrong places!”
The Communion has adopted the culture of the world that shames lgbt people, that sees them as unclean and defiled.
By contrast, the Episcopal Church has sided with these despised persons -- the “least of these your sisters and brothers. “Call not unclean anyone whom God has made,” they say with St. Peter. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile,” they say with Jesus.