United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine
Rev. Kent Allen
March 17, 2019
Scripture: Song of Songs 1:2, 2:10b-13, 4:1-7, 8:5-7, 5:10-16; 1 Corinthians 13
My elementary school had two fifth grade classrooms. When they put an addition on the school, they designed it so the two classes would be next to each other, separated by a moveable partition that was like a big heavy curtain. During the course of the day, it would be opened whenever the 2 teachers, Mr. Lord and Miss Dexter, wanted to do things together as one big classroom. I loved those times because when the curtain opened the person that would be next to me would be Marie Poirier, the girl that made my heart beat faster. After one such group activity and the curtain was closed, I found myself pretty distracted and promptly proceeded to confess my love in a note to Marie, which I finished and then, without thinking slipped it under the curtain, hoping that Marie would receive it. Later that day though, I realized that my great admission did not find its way to Marie, but rather found its way into Mr. Lord’s hands, who had witnessed the note coming under the curtain. The reason I know this is that I was asked to stay after the bell rang at the end of the day and had a little meeting with Mr. Lord and Miss Dexter.
Of course, what caused me anxiety was not that I had slipped the note under the curtain- what I was worried about was the content of the note. Would I be punished for the words of love I had used? The issue for the teachers was different. It was that I was using class time for such endeavors. I was hoping they would give me back the note, but they didn’t. But they also never treated me differently- they never made me feel ashamed. What that said to me was that it was alright to have such feelings, okay to express them, I just shouldn’t do that during class. Some forty years later, Marie and I had a good laugh about it at a class reunion.
The placement of the Song of Solomon in the biblical canon was and has continued to be controversial. This love poem, which has words from both a man and a woman (unusual considering the time that it was written), is highly personal, with erotic language, some of which might have us react with “TMI” — too much information. But it’s presence in the Bible acknowledges that this is part of the human experience. And although God’s name is not found in the text, the poem’s presence suggests that this eros love is not something which should cause us shame or which we should try to avoid. In a book entitled “The Four Loves,” by C. S. Lewis, he describes Eros love as the sense of “being in love” or “loving someone.” Lewis was quick to point out that this was not about raw sexuality or about pure pleasure. He warned against the danger for someone to turn eros love into some kind of god to people who submit to it as a justification for selfishness.
The poem we have in Song of Solomon is one that displays mutuality, delight, intimacy, passion, even eroticism and a high regard for the other — a relationship to cherish and celebrate. A relationship that is grounded in a deep love. One wonders if it hasn’t inspired others to share their profession of love for another. Love is not something that we need to hide under a bushel, that we need to keep to ourselves or try to repress. But the caveat is that it not be all about selfishness or just about physical pleasure. Eros love is about something deeper and more sustaining.
It is not surprising that portions of this poem are often read at wedding ceremonies. It is full of delight. But it has made the religious uncomfortable over the years.
The lectionary selections for several weeks are all about love in its many varieties. At a time when the world seems too often driven by fear and anger, reflections on love seem particularly welcome. In times when the world over is shaken by attacks, like the one in New Zealand a couple of days ago, that target those who simply share a different religious belief, love is a needed presence. Love is not just a distraction from this tendency to fall into despair, or to respond with anger and fear, but love is actually its remedy. This is the central message that Jesus tried to relate. God considers us and all humanity beloved — in all our diversity, in all geographies. What we are called to do is to receive that love and then God looks to us to pass that love on.
The Church in Corinth was a place with a lot of conflict. Church folks were fighting among themselves, about theology. They were having power struggles, they were not getting along. Although the text read this morning fits so well in wedding ceremonies, it was written initially to help a church stay together. It was Paul’s way of instructing folks about the potential of love and to point out its redeeming characteristics.
“Love is patient and kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Paul wrote these words for a community that had divisions, that didn’t agree on how to act or who to let in. And certainly, we are not immune from the same sort of things that can divide us. It can happen in the church and it certainly is happening in the world.
My head spins when I consider all the issues facing the world right now that have us divided. Politics and race, religion and individual rights versus community and societal well-being (which is what the men’s spirituality group talked about yesterday), climate change and how to respond, differing opinions on border security and immigration, LGBTQ rights. The list goes on and on. Paul would direct us, I think, to consider love.
But this is not an easy course to take. We want to choose sides on the things that divide. But as Carolyn Lewis said in a sermon on this 1stCorinthians passage, “it would be better if we only chose sides. Instead, we choose which side we are on, and then to make ourselves feel better or justified about our decision, we proceed to suspect, demonize and tear down the other side.” She then quotes Archbishop Chacour, one who has worked toward reconciliation among Arabs and Jews who says, “The one who is wrong is the one who says, ‘I am right.’” Ouch.
How do we make our way through the divisions that exist in our world or in our nation, or in our community or in our own lives? How do we not give into despair or anger or fear?
The promise is that God is present. That God is made known through you and me. And that we were made to love. Carolyn Lewis, a seminary professor says this to those of us who preach. “You preach the truth. That no matter where we go or who we are, there is and there will be disagreement and division. The answer is not to erase, pretend it doesn’t exist, or think it will eventually go away, but to embrace more fully how to live into it, among it and with it- in love- because God is love.”
I think about this love letter in the Song of Solomon and the passage from First Corinthians and I understand why they are often shared at weddings, but I also think that their power is not limited to those occasions. Love is not merely a feeling, not just an act, but its presence can serve as the remedy for fear and anger. Thanks be to God. Amen