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Not only the passage we just read but the whole book is an ode to the joys of erotic love. It is so giddy with the intoxicating charms of sensual attraction that, like young lovers kissing in the Mall, it seems not to care who else is around or what they might think of such carrying on.
The book is comprised of the love songs sung by a man and a woman who can see only each other. And see each other they do. They linger over every inch in voluptuous celebration, savoring all the physical characteristics of the beloved - thighs and navels and breasts and lips. As one writer has noted, "It is almost enough to get the Bible banned from public libraries. If young adolescents ever happened upon this torrid little book, they might begin to read the Bible with flashlights under their covers at night."(2)
It is little wonder then that the Song of Songs almost did not make it into the Bible. Some have wondered if it has any religious value at all. Read it through from beginning to end in a modern translation - it will not take you long, only eight brief chapters - there is not a single mention of God. Not once. A wonderful collection love poems, OK...but holy scripture?
Some have rushed to its defense. One famous Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiba, claimed that, "The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies."(3) So some interpreters, stuck with this book that could melt a Puritan winter, have tried to make it an allegory - nothing really meaning what it appears to mean, and all beneath the mantle of education - just to bring it into line. Under the influence of Greek views, which denigrated the body, and with the loss of a biblical view of the created goodness of the body and human love, many interpreters felt compelled to find in the Song an allegory of the sacred love between God and Israel, Christ and the church, or Christ and the individual soul.(4) In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux followed this line of interpretation and preached 86 sermons on the Song of Songs, a series that covered only two chapters and three verses. Eighty-six sermons can take the joy out of any subject (and one cannot help wondering if the celibate saint protested too much). These days though, most of us believe that the author of the Song of Songs actually was doing what he or she appeared to be doing (and what more straitlaced interpreters seem unable to admit) namely, celebrating human love with poetry reveling in romance and sexuality.
All right, if God's word in scripture is provided for our instruction and edification, how is this material helpful? One commentator has written,
Encountering these love songs in the pages of the Bible reminds me of the time when, as a teenager, I discovered ardent letters written by my grandparents when they were in the throes of young love. The discovery completed my picture of them. They were real people after all, animated by the kind of impulses and yearnings I knew quite well. These dignified and upright people - who, before my discovery, I could only imagine going to bed fully clothed - also had a love for one another that was as hungry and tumultuous as the sea. And as their lives demonstrated, passionate love for another person need not eclipse God but can enlarge a life in ways that make room for God to be manifest - something I might have missed if those letters had remained undiscovered and my picture of my grandparents had remained incomplete.(5)Good point. Were it not for the Song of Songs, we too might miss the fact that healthy desire and healthy discipleship are not mutually exclusive. Sex is a wonderful gift. GOD'S gift, even. Enjoy!
OK. Now combine that with the passage we heard from Mark's gospel, this seemingly nit-picky confrontation between Jesus and the disciples on one side and the Scribes and Pharisees on the other over this earth-shaking issue of washing your hands before a meal.
Come on!!! Who, other than a five-year-old coming in with mud from head to toe, would raise a fuss about washing hands? Well, the Scribes and Pharisees, obviously. For them, this was more than an issue of cleanliness, it was a way of showing who they were and WHOSE they were. This ritual let the world know they were Jews, the chosen people of God. Granted, they could go overboard with it - in the Mishnah, the how-to manual outlining essential aspects of Judaism, there is one whole chapter - seven pages - on the importance of washing hands, plus another 40-page chapter on cleaning pots, pans, plates and utensils.(6) But, again, the issue was not cleanliness, but identity. To give it a more 21st century spin, think of it as saying Grace before meals. Some of us think that is a big deal, others less so...especially in public. Should we fight about that?
What do you think Jesus would say? Probably something along the lines of not majoring on minors or making mountains out of molehills. In the context of the discussion with the Pharisees, his response was, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'" The issue for Jesus was that these super religious types were more concerned with SHOWING their religion than DOING their religion. Jesus says, NO! Don't just TALK the TALK, WALK the WALK. It all has to do with, in a word, INTEGRITY - being the same on the inside as on the outside. Or as Will Rogers once described it, "[Living] in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.(7)
You are familiar, no doubt with the huge flap down in Alabama about whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed on a 5300-pound granite monument in the rotunda of the Judicial Building in Montgomery. Alabama's Chief Justice Roy Moore installed it two years ago in the dead of night, without forewarning to his eight fellow justices. He later argued that he kept them in the dark so they would not be held liable for his actions - an argument his colleagues have dismissed as, shall we say, less than honest. After all, this is the same Roy Moore who, in the mid-90's had rosewood tablets with the decalogue on them posted behind his bench (and was therefore sued) and in 2000 ran for the office of Chief Justice on a platform of "Still the Ten Commandments Judge." Meanwhile, suit was brought to remove "Roy's Rock," as it has become known, because it fairly clearly violates the First Amendment guarantees that prohibit state sponsorship of a particular religion.
The result was predictable - for a week, Mr. Moore's supporters, undeterred by sweltering summer temperatures and equally undeterred the legal system, which has consistently ruled against them, stood outside the building, denouncing any opponents as perverts and holding up signs reading, "The wicked shall be turned into hell." They swore to "kneel side-by-side in Christian love" to block attempts to remove the monument, and threatened to boycott any moving company that would agree to take on the job. But, "lovingly," of course.
Judge Moore himself remains in lockstep with his fans. "They have allowed the acknowledgment of God to be taken from us because three lawyers walked in this building and are offended at looking at God's word" - that is what he said in a speech from the steps of the courthouse last Monday night. "That's what this case is about. It's not about a monument. It's not about religion. It's about acknowledgment of Almighty God."
Actually, do you know what it is really about? It is about washing hands in a certain way before you eat...or at least the modern day equivalent thereof. Religious EXTERNALS. Does anyone seriously think the Ten Commandments need Roy Moore's protection? Of course not. But for him, and for countless thousands of his supporters, this defiant stand is Christianity at its finest. It lets the whole world know WHO we are and WHOSE we are. Sound familiar? Sweet home, Alabama.
For what it is worth, there is an Alabama politician these days I am coming to admire more and more. Governor Bob Riley. The Governor is a teetotaling, Bible-quoting businessman who as a congressman prior to taking the Governor's Mansion had a nearly perfect record of opposing any legislation supported by the Americans for Democratic Action. Conservative to the core.
But Governor Riley has stunned many of his traditional supporters, and enraged the state's powerful farm and timber lobbies, by pushing a tax reform plan through the Alabama Legislature that shifts a significant amount of the state's tax burden from the poor to wealthy individuals and corporations. And he has framed the issue in starkly moral terms, arguing that the current Alabama tax system violates biblical teachings because Christians are prohibited from oppressing the poor. Oh, did I mention that Governor Riley is a Republican?
According to an article in the New York Times,(8) if Governor Riley's tax plan becomes law - the voters still need to ratify it in September - it will be a major victory for poor people, a rare thing in the current political climate. But win or lose, Alabama's tax-reform crusade is posing a pointed question to the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and other groups that seek to import Christian values into national policy: If Jesus were active in politics today, wouldn't he be lobbying for the poor?
What do you think? Folks in Alabama are used to hearing their politicians make religious arguments, as the current flap over "Roy's Rock" demonstrates. Governor Riley thinks he can convince the voters that Christian theology calls for a fairer tax system. He says, "I've spent a lot of time studying the New Testament, and it has three philosophies: love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you. I don't think anyone can justify putting an income tax on someone who makes $4,600 a year." Go get 'em, Guv.
OK. Enough about politics. Let's talk about sex again. And the reason we are talking about both in the same sermon is not that the previous administration has come back, but that the lectionary has these two passages appearing together. That was not by design - the lectionary passages during Ordinary Time (of which this is the 22nd Sunday on the church calendar) do not necessarily relate to each other. But perhaps there is something providential going on today as this wonderful poem celebrating sex is joined to this equally wonderful lesson from Jesus on integrity. The truth is, in our day and age, sex is not presented as being at all related to integrity. Look at the shows on television - "Sex and the City," "For Love or Money," "Who Wants to Marry My Dad?" "Coupling," "Temptation Island," "Temptation Island 2," "Temptation Island 3," And on and on and on. Sex without integrity. Sex without love. Sex and marriage? What a quaint idea! We know better. After all, the same Bible that says believe also says behave.
As we said early on, sex is wonderful. A Christian understanding of sex begins where the Song of Songs does - a joyful acceptance of it as one of the most delightful forces in human experience. There are no snide innuendos, no crude jokes. Why? Listen to an Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple: "The reason for not joking about sex is exactly the same as for not joking about the Holy Communion. It is not that the subject is nasty, but that it is sacred, and to joke about it is profanity."(9) Handle it with care.
As with all of our life, because we do not want to just talk the talk, but we want to walk the walk, we will handle it with...what's that word again? Oh, yes. INTEGRITY.
1. Robert Davidson, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 93
2. Martin Copenhaver, "Reveling in Romance," The Christian Century, August 10-17, 1994, p. 747
3. Davidson, ibid.
4. Raymond C. Van Leeuwan, "Song of Solomon, Holman Bible Dictionary, Electronic Edition, Parsons Technologies, 1994
5. Copenhaver, ibid.
6. Ron Allen, "Reign In - Reign Out," on the Internet service for preachers, "The Immediate Word," at http://www.csspub.com
7. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 56.
8. Adam Cohen, "What Would Jesus Do? Sock It to Alabama's Corporate Landowners," 6/10/03
9. Davidson, p. 158