Bringing the Text to Life
Sunday, July 5, 2020
The “three C’s” of the kind of love life God intends for us.
AT A GLANCE
In a world where there’s a lot of talk about how to intertwine bodies, Song of Songs provides a prescription for intertwining souls and making love last a lifetime. Love is neither a prize nor a product, but one dimension of a three-dimensional relationship. It has been God’s good gift from the beginning, and Song of Songs teaches us to use it wisely, within the bounds of the commitment and covenant for which God created us.
For material based on today's gospel text, see "The Greatest Generation," July 4, 1999.
A few years back, there was a media report going around about the rock singer Sting, who, according to the report, claimed that he was a practitioner of an ancient eastern form of Tantra and could “make love for eight hours a night.” This was big news in the entertainment world, where sexual prowess is seen as one of the keys to success. Sales of books on the Kama Sutra and other eastern forms of spiritualized lovemaking skyrocketed. Everybody wanted to know the secret.
Awhile later, though, Sting made a cheeky confession. Apparently, he had bragged about his ability to make love for eight hours a night to Bob Geldof, singer for the Boomtown Rats and organizer of the Live Aid concerts. Several years after the story broke, Sting confessed that he had exaggerated the story just a bit in order to impress his fellow musician. “I think I mentioned to Bob I could make love for eight hours,” he explained. “What I didn't say was that this included four hours of begging and then dinner and a movie!”
Bet that wasn’t in any of those books!
Sure, you can head to the bookstore and find “how to” manuals like Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, but the most basic and important stuff we know about sexuality and its ultimate enjoyment is contained in the Scriptures. From Genesis 1 onward we learn that God created sex and blesses our sexuality but does so within the limits for which it was created. Sex was created to take place within a particular relationship — a covenant relationship that is a deeper metaphor for the kind of intimacy God desires for us.
The one book of the Bible that celebrates this relationship most freely is Song of Solomon or “Song of Songs.” It’s here that we see the most powerful expression of sexual passion in the Bible, but even more so we see the amazing freedom that can be enjoyed when sex takes place within its proper context.
Song of Songs sits right in the middle of the Bible — kind of like its centerfold! But rather than being lurid and shameful, the piece of wisdom literature promotes a wild and free view of love and sexual desire. It’s interesting that God is only peripherally mentioned in the book, nor is there any mention of procreation or legal prescriptions. While most of our culture’s focus on sex is the detached and two-dimensional kind found in magazines and on computer screens, Song of Songs promotes a view of sex that is wholly three-dimensional and placed in the context of a committed-but-uninhibited relationship. It’s a lengthy and lusty poem about two lovers pining for one another and imagining the joy of their union.
Scholars have long debated whether the Song should be in the biblical canon at all, while some have suggested that it is simply an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel or Christ and the Church. While we don’t know if the author had that in mind specifically, we do know that in these verses we see the kind of intimacy that God intended us to have with God and with one another from the beginning — a relationship where desire and commitment win out over self-gratification.
What we see in this text, then, is really a short prescription for having great sex, but a prescription that’s not a manual about technique. Instead, it’s the result of three key elements in the relationship:
Commitment. Most of our views of sex tend to be either the “porni-fied” variety, which sees people as mere bodies and love as a naked contact sport, or the “prude-ified” view that wants to pretend that we don’t relate and react to one another physically. Both views focus on only one dimension of human relationships. The writer of Song of Songs, however, is not as concerned with the consummation of a physical relationship as he is with desire and commitment that create a dynamic sense of anticipation for the couple.
In 2:8-9, for example, the female anticipates the coming of her lover and desires him to come quickly like a “gazelle or a young stag.” Verse 16 lets us know that they are committed to one another: “My lover is mine and I am his.” But then, in verse 17, she seems to send her lover bounding away. Consummation of their love and sexual gratification are delayed in favor of a playful and passionate sense of anticipation. Throughout the Song, the lovers move toward and away from one another, revealing that desire and anticipation are often more intoxicating than instant gratification!
Waiting and longing are not forms of punishment for these lovers. There is no sense of “wanting it all and wanting it now.” Instead, the lovers are willing to wait for one another because they know that each is fully committed to the relationship. They can dream of one another, wax poetic about one another, search for one another, even risk harm for one another (5:7) all because each knows the other is waiting. This is no one-night stand, no back alley tryst — it’s about unbridled passion found within the bounds of committed love.
The truth is that real intimacy (and good sex) is the result of a lot of time and energy invested in commitment, loving our partners with our hearts long before loving them with our bodies. Song of Songs itself seemingly ends without a resolution, the lovers still anticipating being fully with one another. That lack of resolution invites us to remember that the more we learn about one another, the more time we spend moving toward one another and even spending time apart, the more we intertwine our brains and spirits before intertwining our bodies, the deeper and more long-lasting our love becomes.
Commitment is not the opposite of freedom. It is the basis for it. People in a mutually committed relationship know that no matter what happens, they are loved and they will return that love. Within the bounds of that commitment they are free to give and receive everything, holding nothing back. There’s a reason that survey after survey reveals that long-term married couples have the best sex lives. The first step toward great sex is commitment. If you skip that and go straight to the sex, you’ve missed the most important step.
Communication. In all of our culture’s focus on bodies, there’s very little focus on the inner dynamic of communication. Song of Songs is a poem with both male and female lovers taking turns playfully communicating with one another. There’s a mutual give and take, with playful invitation like, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (2:10, 13). There’s a mutual give and take, communicating imagination and anticipation. Many sex therapists say that a couple’s ability to share the deepest desires and thoughts in their hearts with each other is an absolute key to sexual intimacy. When we’re open, imaginative, and even poetic with our thoughts and communication, we invite the other person to come closer.
This is tough for us because we live in a sound bite world where people try to economize words and minimize feelings. Even at home, couples communicate through short bursts of information, coordinating schedules, getting kids here and there, deciding what’s for dinner, etc. Real communication, however, takes time and energy. Read Song of Songs all the way through and you see these lovers writing out their deepest thoughts, which didn’t get text-messaged in two minutes!
While it may sound old-fashioned, one way we can begin to emulate the kind of communication we see in Song of Songs is to reengage the practice of writing love notes. We’re not talking about an email here or a cute emoji there, but a good old handwritten letter or card on nice stationary and gifted unexpectedly. Maybe some good homework for the couples in your church would be to practice writing and giving love notes to each other in the coming week. Use them to express what you love about your partner, what your deepest desire is for your relationship, maybe even be a little steamy. Intentional and thoughtful communication can be a key to developing new levels of intimacy with one another.
Of course, face-to-face communication is vital, too. Go for a walk, block out time to listen to one another. “Date” your spouse again! Enjoy spending some time together. A couple that spends regular time focused on each other will also provide a great example for their children, modeling for them how to build a deep relationships in a culture where superficiality is the norm.
Cooperation. A preacher once gave a sermon titled, “Sex Begins in the Kitchen.” It might sound weird, but it’s absolutely true. This is especially important for men to hear. If you want to know the key to really awesome sex, here it is: do the dishes! That’s a tip you won’t find in GQ or Esquire.
Song of Songs doesn’t reveal our sexy young couple doing things like taking out the trash or firing up the lawn mower, but cooperating with one another in just the regular tasks of life, which clears the deck for real intimacy. A husband can expect smoother sailing at night, for example, if he helps his wife clear her “to do” list that evening. Otherwise, he’s just another thing “to do” on that list! After hearing the sermon on sex beginning in the kitchen, one woman responded that the sexiest sound she hears is that of her husband using the vacuum cleaner. Oh, baby! Backing up communication and cooperation with a servant attitude is a huge step toward a great sex life. Taking the kids out for ice cream while mom has a few minutes to herself may not seem like a relevant sex tip, but it is.
Song of Songs reveals the key dynamics of a relationship that can lead to a “purified” and passionate view of sex that can last for a lifetime. When partners are committed to one another and have taken the time to develop a passionate desire for one another, then sex becomes a wonderful expression of the deeper intimacy God intends for us. In a “purified” world, sex is neither a prize nor a product, but one dimension of a three-dimensional relationship. Within a “purified” relationship, sex is not about self, shame or a magazine subscription; it’s about pure, unbridled, guilt-free passion with the one person you know through and through.
We need to be as free to talk about sex in our churches as the Bible does in Song of Songs. Sex has been God’s good gift from the beginning, and when we use it wisely, within the bounds of the commitment and covenant for which God created us, we can experience a purified and powerful sex life.
You just have to make sure you read the right book!
—Bob Kaylor, Melanie Silva and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
WENN. “Sting: ‘I Can’t Make Love for Eight Hours.’” Contact Music website. September 4, 2003. http://www.contactmusic.com/sting/news/sting.-.i-can.t-make-love-for-8-hours. Retrieved January 18, 2020.
THE OTHER TEXTS
JULY 5, 2020, CYCLE A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
What Does the Text Say?
Arranged marriages were common in the ancient Near East. Further, tribal peoples preferred that their offspring marry within their own clans. So, after Abraham's wife Sarah died, he carefully instructed (Genesis 24:3-4, 37-38) his highly regarded servant to obtain a wife for their son Isaac from close kinfolks in the area of Haran/Paddan Aram, along the Euphrates River in northwest Mesopotamia, rather than chancing that Isaac would marry one or more local Canaanite women. Abraham’s servant prayed that he would find just the right wife for Isaac. Rebekah (the daughter of Isaac’s first cousin, Bethuel) turned out to be the answer to his prayer. And after serious negotiations, including financial considerations, between Abraham’s servant and Rebekah’s father Bethuel and her brother Laban, she returned to Canaan with him to become Isaac’s wife, after her family had blessed her. Notice, however, that even with all the bartering, Rebekah was asked for her consent (v. 58). Isaac was quite pleased with Rebekah and loved her. An interesting side issue is that Abraham’s servant was told explicitly (vv. 5-8) not to take Isaac with him on a potential return journey to Paddan Aram. This is partly due to God’s wanting his people to continue to live in the promised setting of Canaan, and — reading between several of the Bible’s lines — Isaac was a relatively weak person compared to his father Abraham and his son Jacob. In terms of biblical theology, note two things: (1) God continues his promise to bless Abraham’s descendants, as Isaac and Rebekah would become parents of Jacob, later named “Israel” (Genesis 32:28), through whom God would eventually bless all of humanity (as in 12:1-4a; 22:17-18; 28:10-17); and (2) what happened was a combination of divine intervention and human planning accompanied by shrewd skillfulness.
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
The Backstage God. People who love theater do not necessarily love being on stage. Yet, what happens on stage in view of the audience could not possibly happen without backstage help. There are many theater students today who aspire not to the stage but to the backstage work on sound, lights, props, backdrops, sets, designs and so on. In this story, God, who has been on stage in so many of the stories in Genesis, suddenly goes backstage, and a humble and obedient servant takes over the stage. If the preacher is a storyteller, this is an ideal story to work with. Weave into the story what the life of faith looks like. Talk about how Eliezer prays and moves forward without any explicit direction from an onstage God.
*Homiletics has treated this text once. Select Genesis in the Scripture Index drop-down menu and click GO.
What Does the Text Say?
In this classic text, Paul laments what we know is the human condition, namely, the vitiated will. The most stunning revelation is that a mere knowledge of the moral character of a proposed action has no bearing on whether that action is implemented — or not. That is to say, one can know that a proposed course of action is ethically and morally sound and good and righteous, and that to proceed would yield the peaceable fruit of a clean conscience, and perhaps bless others in the process; however, that this is true is no assurance that one will actually act in such a beneficent fashion. Conversely, merely knowing that a contemplated action is evil, wrong and ill-considered and that it may harm both oneself and others, will not necessarily keep one from committing the evil, wrong and ill-considered act. In fact, there seems to be a general principle that if it’s wrong, we want to do it, and if it’s good, we don’t want to do it. A rough analogy is that if the food tastes good (think a cheeseburger, fries and soda), it’s bad for us, and if the food tastes bad, it could be good for us. Paul says the battle between the good wolf and the bad wolf (to cite a well-known analogy) is a continual struggle until one realizes that the victor isn’t the wolf one feeds but the wolf who is alive, i.e., the good wolf. Paul says, subsequently, that it’s an illusion for those who are in Christ Jesus, that the bad wolf still lives. The key is to recognize that the victory lies in Jesus Christ, who has put to death the bad wolf (25).
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
How to Never Sin Again. No one would suggest that one can live without sin in thought or not commit sins of omission, which have unintended consequences. That stuff happens. But, is it not possible to live without committing an intentional and willful act of sin for, let's say, a 14-hour period, roughly from when we get up in the morning until we go to bed at night? Such a goal — to live without sin (as we have defined it) — would involve being careful about what we say, how we drive, what we choose to see and watch, what we do in our interactions with others, what we eat and how much we eat. It would require transparent ethical and moral behavior and a generous, caring and loving disposition. Is it not possible? What situations would give us trouble? And remember, we’re not even talking about sins of omission or thought. Put the congregation to the test. Ask them to try it. Ask them to report back via a wiki or a blog, a Facebook page, etc. What are the temptations?
*Homiletics has treated this text twice. Select Romans in the Scripture Index drop-down menu and click GO.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
What Does the Text Say?
Fortunately for the preacher, this gospel reading includes the well-known “Great Invitation” found in verses 28-30. If it did not, this pericope, its standing as a gospel lection notwithstanding, might never get preached. The reading begins with Jesus’ cryptic and unflattering allusion to the games children play — but elsewhere Jesus says that unless you become as a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. He then complains that critics say that his cousin John is too strict, but that Jesus himself is too free-wheeling. In the RCL elliptical reading, Jesus goes on to pronounce a couple of woes on some nearby cities. He then gives thanks that “these things” have been hidden from the so-called intelligentsia, but revealed to “infants.”
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
The Yoke Is on Me. Discuss for a few moments the different ways we might enjoy taking a break, taking a load off, chillaxing, stepping back, tuning out, taking it slow and easy. How would that happen? Eighteen holes of golf? A drink at the corner pub? A massage? A weekend trip to the mountains or ocean? Headphones and music? Show slides of options, perhaps. When you have covered the options and perhaps solicited suggestions from the congregation, roll out an actual yoke, or at the very least show a slide of one. It’s possible that many people in your urban congregation will have no idea what a yoke is. Then explain that Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you ... and you will find rest for your souls.” Explain how that is true. The final three verses provide the preacher with the easiest homiletical path. Although the Law offers rest on the Sabbath, Jesus offers a new rest for those who are burdened and weary from trying to keep the demands of the Law. When we “come unto” Jesus, we find rest, even though Jesus, too, invites us to take a yoke. In this case, however, shouldering that yoke beside us is none other than Jesus himself.
*Homiletics has treated this text twice. Select Matthew in the Scripture Index drop down menu and click GO.
Click here to download a ZIP file of the July-August 2020 issue as Word Docs.
I’ve Got Peace Like a River
It Is Well with My Soul
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Worship and PraiseW
From the Inside Out (Houston)
Be the Centre (Frye)
Lord, I’m in Your Hands
WFor licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to ccli.com. The worship and praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.
on Song of Solomon 2:8-13
from Jul 05, 2020
In the Hebrew Bible’s sublime paean to human love — and the Hebrew title of the book, shir hashirim , literally, “Song of Songs,” could equally well be translated “The Most Sublime Song” — today’s lesson is a portion of one of the exchanges between the two young lovers (which runs from vv. 8-17). The speaker is the young woman, no tongue-tied wallf... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)
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.
—Archbishop William Temple, in a speech to the Church of England Men’s Society, 1943. Cited by John Kent in William Temple: Church, State and Society in Britain, 1880-1950 (Cambridge, 1992), 186.
The instinct, rhythm and radiance of the human body come alive vividly when we make love. We slip down into a more ancient penumbral rhythm where the wisdom of the body claims its own grace, ease and joy. The act of love is rich in symbolism and ambivalence. It arises on that temporary, total threshold between solitude and intimacy, skin and soul, feeling and thought, memory and future. When it is a real expression of love, it can become an act of great beauty which brings celebration, wonder, delight, closeness and shelter. The old notion of the soul being hidden somewhere deep within the body serves only to intensify the loneliness of the love act as the attempt of two solitudes to bridge their distance. However, when we understand that the body is in the soul, intimacy and union seem unavoidable because the soul as the radiance of the body is already entwined with the lover.
—John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (Harper Perennial, 2005).
For many people, sex is brief moments when everything is okay with the world, even if it isn’t. It’s escape from the pain and suffering and brokenness of life. It's a short time when all is right, even if lots of things around us are falling apart.
In Revelation, God announces, “I am making everything new!” Isn't that the longing of every embrace, every act of love, sex itself? To start again, to give yourself away, again, to try again for hope and healing and restoration?
We find sex so powerful because it provides people with glimpses into the world we all desperately desire but can’t seem to create on our own.
—Rob Bell, Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality (Zondervan, 2008), 166-167.
The Song [of Songs] is a prime example of resources in Christian traditions for thinking about sex as sacramental — that is, as providing an experiential glimpse, taste and sense of God’s love for us and our most fitting love for God. These forms of divine and human love are not disembodied, abstract or merely solemn, the Song seems to say. On the contrary, they are consummately embodied, particular, passionate and playful forms of love, full of hyperbole and longing and surprise, and therefore best evoked with the rhetoric of eros. At the same time, human eros itself is best described, finally and most fittingly, as a part of life that points toward God and in which God is present. …
In this sense, at its best, sex is sacramental.
And yet, God knows, sex is not always “at its best.” In the Song's fifth chapter, the woman awakes in the middle of night and discovers that her beloved is gone. She searches anxiously for him, running out into the streets of the city, only to suffer unspeakable abuse from the city’s guards. Despite the rhapsodic evocations of flowers, perfumes and beautiful gazelles, this is no Eden, but rather a broken, fallen world riddled with vulnerability and pain.
In the modern world no less than the ancient one, human bodies, human egos and human histories are fragile things, wonderfully and fearfully made. If sex is sacramental, it can actually be so only in the context of genuine love and care, tenderness and fidelity — precisely because God is loving, tender, faithful and true. …
At its best, then, and only at its best, sex is a taste of heaven on earth. And heaven is not to be trifled with. It needs to be treasured, shielded, nurtured and given room to thrive and grow. For these reasons, it needs “strings attached”: strings that protect, limit and properly empower.
—Elizabeth Myer Boulton and Matthew Myer Boulton, “Sacramental sex: Divine love and human intimacy,” The Christian Century, March 11, 2011.
I think most people are called to marriage because we need at least one other person to be like a mirror for us, to reflect our best self — and our worst self — in a way that we can receive. The interesting thing about a mirror is that it doesn’t change the image; it simply takes it in as it is. Our closest friends or life partner hold a mirror up to us, revealing our good side and our dark side and reminding us that we still haven’t really learned to love. That’s what every healthy relationship does. When we fall in love, we fall into an infinite mystery. …
The dynamics for divine intimacy and human intimacy are the same. I believe one is a school for the other. Most start with human intimacy and move from there to divine intimacy. But some begin with the divine ambush, first learning how to be vulnerable before God, and then passing it on to others.
The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what we do for one another as loving people — offer safe relationships in which we can change. This kind of love is far from sentimental; it has real power.
—Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, eds. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 149-150, 52-53.
Begin your time together by asking all the children to put on happy faces; give them a big smile as an example. Then ask them to put on unhappy faces; pout and frown as an example. Divide your group in half and instruct one half of the group to be grumpy. No matter what you say, no smiles are allowed and their answer is always no. Instruct the other half to be happy and positive. Then ask them questions like, “Who wants to go on a picnic after church?” “Who wants to help out with picking up papers left in the church after services today?” “Who wants to hear a story?” (Make sure that with each question, your negative group continues to say no and pout and your positive group does the opposite.) Tell the children they can stop pretending to be happy or glum and point out how hard it was to get everyone involved when half of the group was frowning and always saying no. Ask them: “What do you need to be able to do to have a friendship, a relationship with someone?” Agree that you need to be able to talk to each other and cooperate with each other, which leads to a committed relationship. Friendships are to be cherished, for they are sacred. Close with a prayer: “God of us all, thank you for the life of Jesus, who showed us what love is all about. Help us to be a friend to each other, as Jesus is the friend of us all. Amen.” (Perhaps the congregation can sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as the children make their way back to their seats or to Sunday school.)