Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Song of Songs 2:8-13
The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
If we had been reading that in the Hebrew we would all be panting by now. Even in English the euphemisms paint a pretty erotic picture. What a wonderful book of the Bible, and one that gets very little reading in our lectionary. What is unique about the Song of Songs is that it is one of the two books of the Bible where there is no explicit mention of God. Esther is the other book, but at least Esther presupposes that there is a God in its references to praying, fasting and the celebration of the Jewish feasts. No explicit mention of God…why was this book included in the cannon? And as it is included, why is it that it isn’t often preached in worship, or read in our homes? It is explicit, it is erotic, and the dialogue is so vulnerable. The couple that speaks back and forth to one another speak freely of their deep passion for the other. The conversation is very three dimensional.
I’m going to take a moment for the scholars among us who like to know who wrote what and when it was written. The Song of Songs is attributed in Chapter 1 verse 1 to Solomon. This is most likely an editorial gloss inserted either to suggest that King Solomon, who was a renowned composer, wrote these songs himself or that he inspired their composition. Despite this attribution to Solomon, one is struck by the amount and quality of speech credited to women in the song. The emotions and experiences of the female protagonist and the Jerusalem daughters are at the center of the poetry. That their emotional experiences ring authentic and their words represent the only unmediated female voices in the Bible lead scholars to think that the poet might be a woman.
Poets, like prophets, rely on metaphors because they are frequently trying to talk about the most elusive of human experiences – peace, joy, community, death, faith and so on. The poet in the Song of Songs finds herself having to rely on metaphors in her attempt to describe the most tender of all human experiences: love. The language is often as bewitching as the imagery alternating between ambiguity, explicitness, reality and fantasy, the literal and the metaphorical. It leads the reader to experience what the lovers experience in their romance: the elusive and yet visceral nature of passion. So if you’re bored already, you can spend the rest of the worship service reading the Song of Songs. As you are in Church and you are holding the Bible, a brown paper wrapper will not be required.
We in the church have not created an environment where we feel comfortable or even able to discuss topics related to passion, relationships and sex. We pretend it is not happening, or should not be happening, or should not be discussed at the very least. If we can’t practice vulnerability and openness in this community of faith, why are we here?
I was telling the Bible study this week that in the late 1980’s the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided to study human sexuality. In good Presbyterian fashion they undertook the topic for three years of study involving pastors, scholars and experts in the field. This group worked very hard for the three years dealing with the complexities of human sexuality. They also involved the Rev. Marie Fortune (A UCC pastor) from what was then the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle and such Biblical Scholars as Dr. Walter Bruggemen and Dr. David Gunn. They had physicians and people who were experts in adolescent sexuality. Their report, a masterful piece of work, was finished in 1991 and ready to present to the 203rd General Assembly. I was a new pastor at the time serving a church in southern Oregon. When I went to my Presbytery meeting I discovered that the report had been leaked to the Reader’s Digest, of all publications, and the Presbytery of the Cascades approved a motion to suppress the report. We were being asked to vote no on reading a report. Well it just isn’t in my nature to suppress a document I had never read, so I not only voted against the motion, but worked to obtain a copy. (Hold up copy.) This beautifully written report was not adopted by the 203 General Assembly.
The report teaches us many wise and thoughtful things. Here are a few: in our own unwillingness to talk about our own sexuality in the church, we’ve gone overboard hyper sexualizing gays and lesbians. We’ve missed the opportunity to develop a vocabulary of sharing intimacy. One theologian has used these words: spontaneity, closeness, emotive flow, openness, willingness to trust feelings, mutual consent, presence, sharing, renewing, ecstasy, freedom, able to handle conflict, self disclosing yet respecting distance, mystery. Here in the church, we could and should be learning how to develop a vocabulary of intimacy. Instead, we’ve missed our opportunity to be vulnerable with one another, and we’ve missed the opportunity to deepen our spirituality and our connection with God, by cutting off our connection with ourselves and with one another.
The study group came up with a new standard for engaging in sexual relations instead of the standard of marriage. I am always happy to remind us that the Biblical standard of marriage was a man and his wives and concubines. The new standard they suggest is a Christian ethic with a single moral focus that they called: Justice-Love. Justice-Love. This is unpacked in a lengthy and thoughtful way throughout the report, but the short form in making a decision about our sexual practice is to ask yourself the question: is this relationship just and is it loving? Is the relationship just and is it loving? In addition to using these questions as we think about our own individual relationships, we the church should educate ourselves on how we can identify, honor and celebrate all sexual relations grounded in mutual respect, genuine care and justice-love. As a church we should be empowering one another to be ethically self-reflective in all areas of our lives. Marriage had been the rubric, the single moral standard for engaging in sexual relationships. I’m sure that we can easily think of relationships in marriage that were neither just nor loving.
It is challenging to think ethically isn’t it? It is easier to have rules and know what they are, and just follow them. Then we know who is doing the right thing and who is not.
In our text from the gospel of Mark, Jesus is being questioned by the Pharisees as to why his disciples are not washing their hands before eating. This might be a bit confusing, but they are not talking about what we all practice as simple hand hygiene. They are talking about food that is part of worship and washing one’s hands as part of a worship ritual. Apparently, the basis for hand washing in Judaism was originally related to the Temple service and sacrifices as outlined in Exodus 30:17-21. Before going into the tent of meeting, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and their feet. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, however, everything changed. There were no longer ritual objects and processes to be followed. Still, the rabbis did not want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved it to the dining room table or home “altar.” In essence, they attempted to bring the holy into every day life.
Jesus challenged the Pharisees about picking and choosing rules to follow. He gave the example about how the law requires us to honor our parents. Instead the Pharisees support the practice of Corban. Corban is where a person would declare that what they have is for sacrificial purposes and therefore is dedicated to God. In this way children did not have to use what they had to help their parents, they could say that it belonged to God. He finally ends his lesson by saying that it isn’t what is out side of a person that defiles them, instead it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could participate in some rituals and be good to go spiritually speaking. We just keep our hands clean and tidy and then we don’t have to worry about caring for our parents, or acting ethically in our relationships. Jesus makes it clear that it is what goes on inside of our hearts and minds that is important.
So, instead of following rules, we are invited into relationship. We are invited to join one another in community and practice sharing of ourselves and being vulnerable. We are invited to share deeply of ourselves with others in our community, revealing to one another what is going on inside of our hearts and minds. We are invited to think about justice and ethics in all spheres of our lives.
I opened the sermon telling you that God is not explicitly named in the Song of Songs. There are no prayers and no rituals. But if God is love as the writers of the New Testament promise over and over, then God is found in the depth of vulnerability that the two lovers share.
Friends, I would ask us to contemplate moving away from thinking that a relationship with God and with one another is about following the rules and practicing the right rituals and move us toward vulnerability in relationships that are carried out in a loving manner with an eye on justice for all people.